It appears that the Bush administration's proposed Mid-East peace conference may not be held before November 2007 — a relatively long time from now considering the volatility of the region, especially the ever deteriorating situation in Iraq and the deepening Fatah-Hamas conflict. Holding such a conference during the current turmoil would seem to jeopardize any prospects of achieving even a modest success, that is, unless the administration abandons failed policies, embraces the Arab Initiative, and has all participants commit in advance to a negotiated set of principles.
Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia's participation is of paramount importance if only because it is a leading Sunni state. But Saudi participation is far more significant as it would signal a break with the past (the Saudis have never officially sat down with the Israelis) as well as lend greater credence to the conference and to any commitments made there. Even more significantly, Saudi Arabia is the author of the Arab Initiative, which calls on Israel to return the territories captured in 1967 in exchange for a comprehensive peace. The Arab Initiative is critical because it is exactly that: an Arab, not an American Road Map, not a Clinton plan, and not any other peace proposal from outside the Middle East. Because they are the authors of the Initiative, the Saudis' presence at the conference will likely engender wider Arab public support than the conference would otherwise attract. This is why the administration must officially embrace the Arab Initiative, thereby not just giving the Saudis a compelling reason to be at the conference but by this, providing an opening for them to assume a leading role in the peace process. The Saudi presence is also necessary since without a collective Arab will, as enunciated by the Initiative and the cover it provides, no effort will be successful in overcoming Islamic Arab militancy and no negotiation will lead anywhere. For any positive outcome to be possible, the Arab states need to work in concert, which makes the Initiative indispensable.
Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the conference's focus, the administration must also make sure that countries in conflict with Israel, Syria and Lebanon in particular, are both present and solicited to present their positions and demands. The administration's policy toward Syria is a failed policy because it has impeded rather than helped move the peace process forward. Syria is the key to a peaceful Middle East, and it is high time for the administration to shift from a policy of regime change in Damascus to one of constructive engagement with Syria. Only at the negotiating table will the administration be able to determine the seriousness of Syria's repeated peace overtures. It is not entirely implausible that Damascus and Jerusalem could agree on a joint declaration accepting the principle of exchanging territories for a normal peace in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242 and commit to a political solution to their conflict. But before any of this can occur, the administration must give Israel the green light to pursue the Syrian track. Without Syria's full participation, the conference is doomed from the outset.
As things now stand, Hamas will not participate in the conference, and while it may be useful in the short run for the administration to demonstrate that moderation pays by rewarding and empowering Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas cannot be wished away. Whereas it is a given that the envisioned Palestinian state must comprise the West Bank and Gaza, any negotiated declaration of principles between Israel and the Palestinians needs also to have a wide Palestinian appeal. Since Hamas is not expected to reform itself anytime soon, is unlikely to die a natural death, or be forcefully dismembered, it can be made to lose popular support only if the declaration of principles deals with fundamentals such as, borders, a general outline of a resolution to the refugee problem, and solid plans for Palestinian economic progress. In sum, in order to erode Hamas' position the Palestinians need to see a very real and compelling vision of a two-state solution. The Arab Initiative can play a significant role here by making it abundantly clear to Hamas that peace with Israel is the only real option. If Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Jordan and other moderate Arab states are joined by Syria, Hamas will be largely isolated politically and increasingly lose public support. To hammer this point home to Hamas, the administration should insist that any declaration of principles be put to a national Palestinian referendum in the West bank and Gaza and then provide the means, including gathering international support, to conduct such a referendum whatever the circumstances. If the leaders of Hamas resist, they will have to be faced down. Hamas must understand its options in advance, but a referendum could also give Hamas a face-saving way out.
After nearly five years of war in Iraq, one would hope that the administration has finally moved beyond the futility of having believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be resolved by removing Saddam Hussein from power. It would also be helpful if the President has understood that the conference he has called will produce nothing if he continues to rely on policies that have not moved the peace process forward. The next couple of months will show whether Mr. Bush is serious about advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process or is merely using the conference to distract public attention here and in the Middle East from a disastrous war that has cast such an ominous cloud over the entire region.