Arab diplomats like to say that 80 percent of the Middle East’s problems would disappear with a resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. This is a fiction, and a self-serving one: It lets Arab rulers off the hook for their own malfeasance, and implies that America’s Middle East policy should start and end in Jerusalem. Condoleezza Rice seemed to bow to this reasoning by announcing Monday that she would attend a three-way summit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in order to reboot the “peace process.” But Rice’s diplomatic mission needn’t be utterly a fool’s errand — depending on how the administration pursues its objectives beyond the borders of Gaza and the West Bank.
Within those borders, the diplomacy will probably accomplish nothing. Israel cannot make peace until it has a negotiating partner that both accepts its right to exist in security and enjoys sufficient power to keep in check those terroristic forces who don’t. Mahmoud Abbas may or may not be a reasonable man, but there is no question of his powerlessness. He holds no sway over the democratically elected murderers of Hamas, and he has lost much of his traditional control over the Fatah faction, which now vies with Hamas in a low-grade Palestinian civil war. Hardly the right conditions for a “final settlement.”
On the other hand, the diplomatic push is unlikely to make things much worse. Israel will never negotiate away its security; nor will the Bush administration — more attuned to Israel’s needs than any presidency in history — ask it to do so. What the talks might accomplish is a marginal increase in the Arab world’s perception that the United States is working to create a Palestinian state; and this might in turn better position the U.S. to win the cooperation of Arab states in pursuing its other, more important objectives.
“Might” is the key word. Other U.S. presidents — including George W. Bush himself — have been engaged in the peace process before, and this has not yet made the Middle East’s potentates tractable. Nonetheless, if the U.S. is perceived as striving in earnest to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Arab leaders will perhaps feel greater latitude to assist America in its more important priorities.
Precisely because these priorities — its new Iraq strategy and its adoption of a more aggressive stance toward Iran and Syria — are more important, the Bush administration must keep them front and center. The administration should use Rice’s mission as a justification to ask for Arab concessions on these fronts: “You want us to be more involved in the peace process? Fine. Now let’s talk about the rest of the Middle East.” There are many things Arab states could do to be helpful: cracking down on terrorists and terrorist financing; forgiving Iraqi debt; supporting American diplomacy against Iran’s nuclear program; trying to peel Damascus away from Tehran.
Rice’s diplomacy can also be useful domestically. It should silence, once and for all, the Democratic demand that Bush do more to please “our Arab allies.” These same Arab allies fear the rise of Shiite power and therefore desperately want us not to leave Iraq and not to engage Iran diplomatically — both of which many Democrats are positively panting to do. With Bush holding firm on both these fronts while sending Rice to the Levant, his policy is more congenial to our allies in the region than that of the Democrats’ self-styled multilateralists.
It is unrealistic to hope that a new summit will produce solutions where decades of summits have failed. But diplomacy can occasionally achieve something even when it achieves nothing. And that is the best that can be said of Secretary Rice’s venture this week.