Officials in Washington and Jerusalem have embraced it with enthusiasm, but the international peace conference tentatively scheduled for early summer may be intended more as a diplomatic stop-gap than a great diplomatic leap.
“My inclination is to believe it’s a mirage,” said Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum and a leading critic of the Oslo peace talks. “Nobody really believes in it, but everybody is supporting it in order to look good.”
That includes an Israeli government that once bitterly opposed efforts to bring the dispute with the Palestinians to an international forum.
Still, some Mideast experts say that for all the low expectations of the conference — which is expected to include representatives of European, Arab and Muslim states, as well as Russia and
the United Nations — it could be an important incremental step in ending more than 19 months of violence and offering at least the possibility of serious negotiations aimed at something more than just a cease-fire.
“Even if the party’s objectives are very different, who cares?” said Joel Singer, a legal adviser to the Israeli team that put together the first Oslo agreement. “At least we may be able to accomplish something by getting the parties back together again.”
Still, Singer said that the odds of anything resembling a breakthrough are tiny.
“It’s not something I’d bet my house on,” he said.
Administration officials have started rounds of meetings to flesh out the broad concept unexpectedly announced by Secretary of State Colin Powell last week. At the same time they are trying to dampen expectations for any breakthroughs.
The meeting is expected to involve just foreign ministers, averting the problem posed by Sharon’s refusal to negotiate with Arafat — and meeting administration concerns that Arafat has not done nearly enough to enjoy a return to official statesman status.
The conference could begin with efforts to work out an interim agreement that includes the declaration of a Palestinian state on portions of Gaza and the West Bank now under fully Palestinian control.
Like the Oslo agreement, it would put off the most contentious issues, including Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem, to later in the process.
The conference might also delve into a wide range of regional issues, including water and economic relations.
Administration officials say that the conference will help establish a “horizon” for progress on core issues for the Palestinians. But just negotiating the details of the meeting could result in its delay, sources here say. Some likely participants, including Saudi Arabia, have already balked; Israel has made it clear it does not want Syria to attend.
Singer said the conference is unlikely to produce long-lasting results unless it quickly moves beyond the ministerial level. “Nothing can really get resolved without the top people, the big honchos,” he said. “Can you imagine Sharon giving [Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres a free hand to negotiate?”
The original Madrid peace conference, he said, was originally envisioned as a meeting between foreign ministers, but then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir insisted on attending. “I’m not saying that will happen again, but it could,” he said.
For the Bush administration, the lure of an international conference is based heavily on the fact that nothing else it has tried in recent months has done more than provide temporary respites from the cycles of terror and retaliation.
And the White House fears the ongoing crisis is impairing its ability to mount a military offensive against Iraq with Arab and Muslim support — or at least acquiescence.
“It’s motion for the sake of movement,” said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “Its purpose mostly is to demonstrate activity.”
The Bush administration has been under intense pressure from friendly Arab and Muslim states to become more directly involved in Mideast peacemaking, and to take a stronger hand in urging Israeli restraint, she said. The same kind of pressure has come from the European nations.
“It will give the administration a period of breathing room for planning its attack on Iraq,” Kipper said. “Right now that’s a top priority at the White House.”
Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University and a leading Mideast policy expert, described the proposed conference as a “holding action; it gives the impression we are ‘engaged,’ and there’s always the possibility that something useful might turn up.”
But in the end, he said, conveners of the peace talks will face the same problem that has bedeviled every set of negotiations since the first Madrid conference in 1991: Yasir Arafat.
“He’s still a terrorist,” he said. “His record is appalling, wherever you slice into it.”
The Bush administration reportedly hopes that some of Arafat’s friends, and in particular the European nations and Saudi Arabia, will pressure him into mending his ways. But history suggests that those countries do not have the stomach for a confrontation with the Palestinian leader — and that in any event, Arafat has proven remarkably impervious to outside pressure over the years.
For Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the proposed conference might also be a useful tool for buying time and creating at least the appearance of forward movement.
“He wants to show that he’s not averse to real peace talks, but his political situation means he can’t actually sit down with Arafat and negotiate,” said a leading pro-Israel activist here. “The idea of an international conference helps him create the impression he’s moving forward, but he doesn’t really have to take any risks to do it.”
Pipes said that embracing the proposal for a conference will help Sharon mollify the Labor faction in his divided government and help prevent new U.S. pressure.
But there are risks for Israel, including the likelihood Arafat will try to manipulate the conference to pressure Israel to give up even more than it was willing to give at Camp David and Taba.
Jewish leaders say Washington will not allow that to happen — but officials here could be distracted by their faltering effort to mount a military campaign against Iraq.
And even if he is not on the initial guest list, the mere fact of holding the conference will be an undeserved reward for Arafat, Pipes said.
“In fact, it could be an incitement for more violence,” he said. “It creates an impression of Israel weakness — that they’ll keep coming back to the table no matter what Arafat does.”
Still, most Jewish leaders say that with violence continuing — this week’s Bush-Sharon summit in Washington was punctuated by the first suicide bombing in weeks — an international conference might be worth the risk.
“If this represents a serious attempt to iron out serious issues, and if it’s an adjunct to other diplomatic activities, it could be important,” said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice-president of B’nai B’rith. “If people see it as a mechanism to impose a peace, it will be very destructive, and it will fail.”