By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 19/01/07):
Suddenly everybody has a Middle East peace plan. After six futile, blood-filled years of maintenance diplomacy, the Bush administration is finally injecting a little energy into its mediation efforts. And Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, who holds the EU presidency, has succeeded in resuscitating the so-called Quartet – the negotiations oversight group comprising the UN, US, Russia and EU. It will meet in Washington early next month.The Saudis are pushing a new version of their 2002 initiative. Linking Arab assistance in stabilising Iraq to progress in Palestine, the proposal has been cynically dubbed “Iraq for land”, mimicking the old formula of land for peace.
Israel’s Labour party leader and defence minister, Amir Peretz, meanwhile, has his own ideas. He and his deputy, Ephraim Sneh, have unveiled what they term “the new road map”, calling for final status negotiations with the Palestinians within six months. Egypt and Jordan have also proposed fast-forwarding the process.
Just to confuse matters further, France, Italy and Spain jointly produced a five-point blueprint last month. It appears to seek to fudge the previously unanimous western demand that Hamas, Palestine’s ruling party, recognise Israel’s right to exist. But like French president Jacques Chirac’s aborted bid to launch a unilateral diplomatic opening to Iran, this attempt at Mediterranean moderation is not going anywhere.
That is because only the US has the leverage to ensure that any future peace plan, however it is eventually formulated, will actually work. Tony Blair, who undertook his own regional peace mission in December and is said to view progress there as a key personal legacy issue, understands that better than most. His meeting in London yesterday with Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, was his latest chance to urge Washington to greater efforts.
After neglecting the issue to all practical purposes since succeeding the equally ineffectual Colin Powell at the state department, Ms Rice seems to have come up with a game plan at last. Now her daunting task is to bring all the other parties and disparate ideas into line.
Speaking in Berlin at the end of her latest Middle East tour, she said she would host a summit with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. That would take several weeks to prepare and needed as much international support as possible, hence the value of reconvening the Quartet.”There are a lot of ideas floating around about how we might get the peace process back on track,” she said. “I did find the parties very desirous of making progress.”
But Ms Rice is already struggling to keep eyes focused on the diplomatic ball. During a stop in Riyadh, she suggested that an idea promoted by some European countries of a grand, international peace conference, similar to that in Madrid in 1991, was on the back burner for now. She also said the “old” 2003 road map, routinely dismissed as moribund, if not dead, still underpinned the overall process.
Ms Rice’s efforts so far have elicited suspicion in the Arab world, partly because little has come of such initiatives in the past. But the scepticism is principally because the main purpose of her trip was not Israel-Palestinian peacemaking at all but the rallying of Sunni Muslim regimes in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf behind president George Bush’s “new way forward” in Iraq and his more confrontational stance vis-a-vis Iran. The tacit quid pro quo for Arab solidarity in the face of continuing anti-Sunni sectarianism in Iraq and this week’s attempt by Tehran to woo the Saudis is concrete progress towards Palestinian statehood.
Among many other potential obstacles to peace, two stand out. One is the possibility that Mr Olmert, battered by a bank scandal and the resignation of the army chief of staff, may not last much longer as Israel’s prime minister – and that ensuing, prolonged political turmoil will deny the Palestinians a partner for peace.
The other, more frightening scenario, discussed by commentator Aluf Benn in the Ha’aretz newspaper, is that Mr Olmert might order the assassination of Hizbullah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in Lebanon, or the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, as a way of “restoring his leadership”. Mr Benn believes these options will probably prove too risky to be attempted.