The all-too-long history of the "peace process" has taught us that a summit can be a desirable goal, but also a place of unsurpassable danger. When participants come with insufficient preparation, and without a safety net, the depth of the fall can be as high as the summit itself. There is a great difference between a fruitless round of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah on the part of a presidential envoy and a failed summit called by U.S. President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In the 16 years since the Oslo Accords were signed at the White House, Israelis and Palestinians have witnessed countless summits, peace conferences, negotiations and understandings and even innumerable agreements. All ended in disappointment or, at worst, in yet another wave of violence.
It can be hoped that the Americans have learned, from the bitter experience of Camp David in 2000, that a tripartite summit is not just another media event, like a speech in Cairo or a New Year's greeting. A meeting of the U.S. president with the leaders of the parties is the Judgment Day weapon of the diplomatic world. The term peace process has already been placed in quotation marks and absorbed heavy doses of cynicism. Who remembers what Obama said in Cairo this spring, or the declarations made in Annapolis in November 2007? Both parties have since lost their remaining faith in a negotiated solution. If Tuesday's summit, too, ends with nothing but a handshake for the cameras, what will they have to look forward to?
The New York summit can move things forward or bring them crashing down; staying in place is not an option. Netanyahu and Abbas are not the only players on the field; every failure on the part of the pragmatic Palestinian camp is a victory for the extremist Palestinian camp. Abbas has bet his credibility on the Americans and their ability to influence their Israeli friends. If Obama sends him away empty-handed it will play into the hands of Abbas' big rivals in Gaza and Damascus. Hamas will not miss such an opportunity to present the summit as yet more proof of its claim, since the Oslo Accords, that support for Fatah is flimsy. How much longer will Abbas' police officers put up with being painted as collaborators with the occupation?
The summit's success will not be measured by the extent of the settlement freeze Obama obtains from Netanyahu. Even the Palestinians recognize that a few hundred more homes in Ma'aleh Adumim or Pisgat Ze'ev will not make a difference in a long-term solution of the conflict. For the summit to avoid becoming another forgettable footnote in the history of the peace process, the participants must return home with a full translation of the slogans voiced in Cairo by Obama into the language of action. Obama doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. All he needs is to update the road map timetable, which long ago became UN Security Council Resolution 1515.
The road map says that in 2005 the parties will reach a permanent solution that will end the occupation that began in 1967. It also says the agreement will include a negotiated settlement on the status of Jerusalem and an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue. Two Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, negotiated with the Palestinians on all these issues and even reached some understandings. As President Shimon Peres (who is now pushing the two sides to deal, as a first stage, only with the issue of borders) says, you can make an omelet with eggs but no one can make eggs out of an omelet.
In a Rosh Hashanah Eve interview Netanyahu called on Abbas to decide whether he is Yasser Arafat or Anwar Sadat. Obama may ask Netanyahu on Tuesday to decide whether he is Menachem Begin, who gave back the entire Sinai (without asking in exchange that Israel be recognized as "the nation-state of the Jewish people") or Yitzhak Shamir, who opposed the peace agreement with Egypt. If Likud MK Benny Begin, Menachem Begin's son, still supports Netanyahu the day after the summit then Israel and the world will know that, to paraphrase Shamir in regard to the Arabs and their inability to change: The sea is the same sea, and Netanyahu is the same Netanyahu.
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