It seems as if every American president has to make one last, desperate attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and it’s easy to see why.
Former President Carter has been using those Camp David meetings that eventually led to a peace — it turned out to be a “cold peace,” but at least it’s not active hostility — between Israel and Egypt to burnish his reputation ever since.
So predictably enough, as George W. Bush’s term winds down, the administration is traveling that well-worn road of hope.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been nothing if not active on this front. She has prodded Israelis and Palestinians to attend a U.S.-sponsored conference to be held in late November. And in one of her strongest statements to date, she said last week the creation of a Palestinian state is a key U.S. interest.
These announcements may look like surprise breakthroughs when they are announced with great fanfare by solemn heads of state, but they have almost always been preceded by months or even years of quiet negotiations.
It isn’t great negotiating skill or even the application of pressure that leads to breakthroughs; it largely is a confluence of interests that is perceived that way by both parties, and steady discussions.
Thus at Camp David in 1979, it wasn’t Jimmy Carter’s skill as a moderator that led to an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It was the fact that Anwar Sadat had decided it was time for one and was ready to talk through the issues.
And remember the Oslo accords of 1993, when most observers thought a true path to Israeli-Palestinian peace had begun? That agreement ensued after months of secret negotiations, and the two parties then called on the United States to bless it in a public signing ceremony, several weeks after the agreement was finalized in Norway.
Now it’s possible that quiet diplomacy has been taking place behind the scenes in preparation for this late-November conference, but the news stories suggest otherwise.
The Palestinians are saying in public that they need a document that details such “final status” issues as the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the withdrawal of Israeli settlements on the West Bank — before a conference is convened.
The Israelis, who have aroused Arab paranoia recently by apparently bombing what Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials say was a nuclear research and development site in Syria, say they don’t need a document, and aren’t all that enchanted with the idea of commitments on “final status” issues.
So we doubt the underpinnings are in place for a true accord; we would love to be proven wrong.
But it looks as if this late-November meeting will be more like that desperate Camp David meeting held in the last few frenetic weeks of the Clinton administration — a meeting that blew up without an agreement — than the triumphant 1979 Camp David meetings that President Carter convened.
It just looks as if the two parties are too far apart, and the quiet groundwork to bring them together simply hasn’t been done.