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Is peace out of reach?

The chance for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation may have passed.

July 15, 2007|Aaron David Miller | AARON DAVID MILLER, who served at the State Department as an advisor to six secretaries of State, is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. His forthcoming book, "The Much Too Promised Land," will be published in 2008.

YASSER ARAFAT was the first to arrive. He came by presidential helicopter, his black and white kaffiyeh flapping in the cool evening breeze. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton arrived the next day. And then there were three, a trio of would-be peacemakers who dared to defy the odds and history.

It was seven years ago that the last best chance to set the stage for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played out at Camp David, nestled in the Catoctin Mountains, 60 miles east of Washington. I was there as one of a handful of U.S. negotiators. We'd spent the previous six years haggling, arm-twisting and cajoling about the interim issues of the Oslo peace process. Now, in the final months of his second term, Clinton was going for broke in a desperate effort to reach a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all.

But it did not happen. By the end of the second week, the summit, organized by a deeply committed U.S. president with the best of intentions, had collapsed -- producing galactic consequences that would have been impossible to predict at the time.

Unlike the seven fat years of diplomacy that preceded the summit, the seven that followed would be lean ones indeed. Terror, violence, confrontation and unilateralism -- abetted by the Bush administration's unwise decision to abandon serious Arab-Israeli diplomacy almost entirely -- have created a situation that impels cynics, skeptics and even believers to ask a distressing and fundamental question: Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolvable?

Seven years on, the "no, it's not" answer is chillingly more credible than ever. I've learned from experience never to say never in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, but still, three grim realities inform the pessimism.

First, the viability of an authoritative, pragmatic Palestinian center is at serious risk. Some, of course, argue that it never existed. But my view is that between 1993 and 2000, Palestinians had a leader who, together with four Israeli prime ministers, collaborated on a process of peacemaking that got them further than ever before.

It is true that, at the end of the Camp David summit, Arafat still refused to negotiate for anything less than a Palestinian state created on the June 4, 1967, borders with Jerusalem as its capital. But the fact remains that he was the undisputed and authoritative leader of a people increasingly willing to live in a state alongside (rather than instead of) Israel -- and he was there at Camp David, engaged in talks that broke taboos and created a basis for serious progress. The Arafat conundrum -- that it was hard to do a deal with him but impossible without him -- is a better situation than what we confront now.

Today, a divided, dysfunctional Palestinian house sits on part of Palestine without even the pretense of control of its politics, borders, resources or guns. I've known Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for more than a decade; he's a good man with a moderate nature who has the will and the incentive to make peace with Israel. But he lacks the power. He barely controls his own Fatah party, let alone the West Bank he's been relegated to. Eager to empower him, Israel and the United States are releasing funds, prisoners, political support and maybe even guns. It's worth a try, but the odds were far better in 2005, when a newly elected Abbas was much stronger and Hamas was much weaker.

In Gaza, meanwhile, the militant Hamas organization -- which a few years ago was known for little other than its brutal bombings of civilians on the buses and in the bars and pizza parlors of Israel -- tries to maintain order, raise funds and demonstrate that it can do what Fatah cannot: provide security and prosperity for Palestinians. But even as Hamas tries to preserve order in Gaza, it will promote disorder and its own influence in the West Bank to frustrate Abbas' plans there. The situation is a chaotic mess, but one thing is increasingly clear: Hamas can't be starved or beaten into submission.

Second, Israel has its own leadership crisis. A stronger consensus than ever exists among Israelis in favor of resolving the Palestinian issue -- but they're desperately waiting for a leader to tell them how to do it. Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (the only Israeli leader who combined the toughness and pragmatism to have a chance of succeeding), Israel has had five prime ministers. Not one of them has had the vision, character and smarts -- or the Palestinian partner -- to make peace possible.

The current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is clearly a transitional figure, and his Kadima party may be a passing phenomenon as well. His two most likely rivals, former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, see him as a speed bump in their plans to contest elections, perhaps as early as next year.

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