Expectations, Anyone?

The Americans have not learned the bitter lesson of the failure of the second Camp David summit and the intifada that followed it: Peace summits are not child's play.

"The American leadership is determined to hold the international conference soon." "President Bush has proven how steadfast he can be and will not withdraw his plans for a conference." "President George Bush announced during the press conference that he is demanding an immediate freeze on construction in the settlements and warned that if the government of Israel ignores his demand, he will not hesitate to reduce economic aid to [America's] small friend." "We are the United States and this is the foreign policy of the United States." "So long as I am president, I will continue working for what I believe is in the best interest of the United States ... I am completely convinced that this is wholly beneficial for the peace process."

These are all statements I took from the Haaretz archive. The president mentioned was Bush Sr., and the conference was held in Madrid as planned, in late October 1991. Even though it was a presidential election year, Bush insisted that negotiations over the future of the occupied territories did not mesh with efforts to expand the occupation. The president forced prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to choose between America's foreign policy and Israel's settlement policy. Shamir chose the settlements; Jewish organizations protested; "Israel's friends" in Congress applied pressure; but Bush did not give in. He froze the $10 billion worth of loan guarantees that Israel had requested to fund the absorption of new immigrants from the Soviet Union.

What about today? It has been six weeks since the address in which George W. Bush announced his decision to invite Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states to a meeting that would be dedicated to furthering the idea of a Palestinian state. It seems that the contradiction between the two-state vision and the reality on the ground in the territories still exists. The fact is that even the current president Bush demanded that Israel stop expanding settlements. He even demanded that it evacuate the illegal outposts - a relatively new contribution to the list of euphemisms. Back when Bush Sr. was in the White House, every type of Israeli construction in the occupied territories was seen as a violation of international law. But mere statements are not enough. George W. Bush also said that Israel must "reduce its presence in the territories." Or, to use less watered-down language, Israel must finally carry out its recycled promise to reduce the number of internal checkpoints in the West Bank. So he said it. Big deal.

During his July 16 speech, Bush did not make do with general talk about a "vision" and a "political horizon." He did not hesitate to relate to the "core issues." The president said that negotiations on borders, refugees and Jerusalem must begin, and that the borders should be based on both the lines of the past and the reality of the present, with agreed changes. So he said it. What has happened since? Autumn (the general time set for holding the international, or regional, conference or "meeting") is nearing and there are still no invitations, no hall, no date, no guest list and no agenda.

Were it not for the fact that the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world, and that this summit is meant to alter the regional balance of power between moderates and extremists, it would be possible to laugh. Even Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns told Roger Cohen of The New York Times last week that Iran and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip are waiting for the summit to fail. Burns expressed concern that in light of the trend toward radicalism in the Middle East, this could be an opportunity that will not recur.

And what is his boss doing so that this opportunity will not end like its predecessors did? If nothing unexpected occurs, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will drop by the region for a few hours in a couple of weeks. She will presumably accept the recommendation made by her counterpart, Tzipi Livni: "to lower expectations." As if anyone had expectations. After that will come the holiday season, the United Nations General Assembly and the meeting of donor countries.

Then secretary of state James Baker crisscrossed the region seven times between March and October 1991 in order to prepare the ground for the Madrid summit, which was mainly the inaugural ceremony of fruitless negotiations between Israel and the Arabs. At that time, no one mentioned issues like the Temple Mount, the Palestinian refugees and territorial exchanges. The Americans have not learned the bitter lesson of the failure of the second Camp David summit and the intifada that followed it: Peace summits are not child's play. They are like playing with fire.