Leading article: Bush's last chance to leave a legacy of peace

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There will surely be moments in the next 24 hours when some of the leading participants will wonder whether they were wise to turn up for tomorrow's international conference on the Middle East in Annapolis. Intended to jump-start the first serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation for seven years, the meeting was devised partly to strengthen the standing of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. Anything that can credibly be presented as a failure, however, may have the opposite effect.

Even assuming that the negotiations begin after tomorrow, the obstacles to success remain daunting. Hamas, which is in control of Gaza, is excluded from the process and has the power to disrupt it. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, conversely, faces powerful domestic opposition to making any of the concessions to the Palestinians that will be needed if there is to be any hope of a two-state solution.

Some steps can be taken to improve this inauspicious climate. The first is to bring about a tangible improvement in the lives of Palestinians. With the exception of the southern border of Sderot and its surrounding area, which suffer a daily barrage of Qassam rockets, the lives of Israelis have markedly improved since the peak of the intifada. But those of the Palestinians, whose economy has been blighted by ever tighter restrictions on movement, have got worse.

Tony Blair, whose quiet but effective involvement as Middle East envoy has so far been largely positive, argues that progress on Israeli security, a better economy for the Palestinians, and a political solution for both peoples all go hand in hand. This is an improvement on the "security first" doctrine, which holds that no progress is possible until Palestinian militancy has been crushed. Western and Arab countries will have a chance at the summit to endorse Mr Blair's approach.

Second, the probable presence of Syria tomorrow, at however low a level, ought to be exploited as the first step in a parallel peace process. This would see the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in exchange for an end to Syrian succour for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Last, participants cannot leave Annapolis in denial about Hamas, or about Gaza. Home to 40 per cent of the Palestinian population, Gaza is suffering dire poverty and is in despair as a consequence of the current blockade. If Hamas wanted to scoop Annapolis, it could do worse than offer Israel an immediate exchange of the abducted Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, for Hamas prisoners. The danger is that Hamas will respond with greater violence, however, prompting Israel to invade Gaza. The proposal that the Israeli Meretz party leader, Yossi Beilin, made last week for a third party-negotiated ceasefire with Hamas, reinforced by a prisoner exchange and the opening of the Karni cargo crossing, offers a better interim solution.

This last would require a change of heart on the part of the US. But unless George Bush is genuinely prepared to remove the obstacles now standing in the way of success, Annapolis will emerge as a failure.

Although the US stance is critical, the Europeans have a significant role to play, too. Next month, in Paris, they will be asked to stump up a big share of the $5.8bn (£2.8bn) that the emergency Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, requires to alleviate the effects of earlier Palestinian mismanagement, the occupation, and a long international boycott. The money is needed if a future Palestinian state is to be built. In return, the Europeans should use their influence to ensure that an end is in sight to that same occupation.

Comments