A Summit Too Far


With the date nearly three months away, policy-makers and pundits are placing their bets on what kind of progress can be made at the Mideast peace conference said to be set for November.

When United States President George W. Bush announced plans in July for the summit, both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud ‘Abbas said they welcomed the chance to sit down and talk peace.


Israel and the P.A. have not sat down to broker peace at a multilateral conference since smaller-scale summits at Sharm A-Sheikh in 2005 and 1996.

A member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Avigdor Itzhaky, told The Media Line that the scheduled conference showed progress in peace negotiations, even though it would not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It’s one more effort of what we would like to achieve – quiet and peace in our land of Israel with a two state solution by the vision of President Bush, ” said Itzhaky, a member of the ruling Kadima Party said.

The chairman of the political committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abdallah Abdallah, said Israel did not intend to reach a concrete solution. He said Israel would just go through the motions and enjoy a “normalization of relations ” with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia.

According to the Saudi peace initiative that was approved by the Arab League in 2002 and again in 2007, Israel’s relations with Arab countries were only supposed to improve if Israel met certain demands. These demands included withdrawing from Arab territories it has occupied since 1967, such as the Golan Heights, and recognizing an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel never accepted the initiative, but both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have said they would be willing to discuss the initiative if parts of it were amended

Some members of the international community are calling the timing of the summit premature. Mike Gapes, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British parliament told The Media Line that Bush should not have called a summit until the Palestinians united their territories and extremists shifted toward more moderate positions.

“I’m personally very skeptical about the plan that President Bush has for the conference in the autumn and whether that will succeed, frankly, because of the internal political problems in Israel but also because of these very, very deep internal Palestinian divisions, ” Gapes said.

Problems in the PA

The conference could not come at a more volatile time for the Palestinian Authority, says Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. Wurmser says she hopes leaders at the summit will focus on stabilizing ‘Abbas’ government.

“We’re in a very fluid situation, because we have a very weak government in the West Bank plagued by internal strife, ” Wurmser says. “The most important thing the conference can do is seriously give us answers as to what we can do about strengthening Abu Mazen’s [Mahmoud ‘Abbas’] government. “

When Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June, ‘Abbas appointed an emergency government to replace the Hamas-led unity government elected in 2006. The emergency government lasted 30 days until it became the caretaker government that is currently in power.

According to Wurmser, if ‘Abbas’ government collapses, Hamas will take control of the West Bank. Iran, which backs Hamas, can then infiltrate Israel through Hamas’ territories. Wurmser predicts leaders of nearby countries will discuss keeping Hamas out of the West Bank, as they want to stop the spread of Iran’s influence in the region.

Abdallah said the summit should not focus on solving the PA’s internal problems, but instead focus on the root that lies behind the problems – Israel’s occupation.

“The P.A. is our problem and we’ll deal with it, ” he said. “If there is progress in the peace process, there will be no more difficulties or differences within the Palestinian ranks. “

Abdallah said the summit could be useful if leaders pushed Israel to cease denying “to the Palestinian people the right of self-determination. ” Abdallah said he was not optimistic, but that he had seen “precedents in history where determined leadership in the US can press the Israelis in the right direction. “

But lately, the U.S. president has been pressing the Palestinians – and not the Israelis – in a certain direction. On July 16, when Bush announced plans for the summit, he urged Palestinians to choose the “hopeful option, ” of Fatah under the leadership of Chairman ‘Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad over Hamas.

American politicians such as Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-Nev) are concerned about Bush’s support of Fatah. Berkley said that during a mid-August meeting with Israeli leaders, she told Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni she had trouble identifying Fatah as a “moderate that we can do business with. “

“For all these years it was Arafat’s party (Fatah) that perpetrated all of the terrorism, ” Berkley told TML during an in-studio interview. “There’s a reason that Fatah has been degraded and disarmed by the Israelis and that’s because the weapons the Americans gave Fatah to maintain order in the territories… were used against Israelis. “

Berkley said the U.S. government had to figure out how much money it should give Fatah for it to “function as a government and protect the Palestinian people. ” Already, Bush has announced the U.S. would provide the Palestinians with more than $190 million in assistance, $80 million for Palestinian “security services, ” and help broker $228 million in loans to Palestinian businesses.

The Arms Deal

The week after Bush announced plans for the summit, the U.S. pledged a $63-billion arms package to the Middle East. According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. upped Israel’s aid by 25 percent, to $30 billion and planned to send $13 billion to Egypt over the next 10 years. What captured the media’s attention was the approximately $20-billon-worth of U.S. arms sales set for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

The media speculated that Bush was, perhaps, trying to lure countries to the summit with the arms package. But Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., told The Media Line she does not think the fall summit had any influence over the arms package. Countries that were involved in the deal have no obligation to attend the upcoming summit.

“This is a no-strings attached deal, ” she says. “The reality is these allies in the Middle East are important enough that we’re not putting too many strings on it. “

She says the U.S. transfers billions of dollars of weapons every year to the Middle East and the new package is no different from Bush’s past efforts to push his foreign policy agenda in the region. For example, since 1998, Saudi Arabia alone has received more than $ 15 billion in U.S. weapons.

Stohl says she cannot gauge how big the sale really is until more details come to light. It will take a few months before the sale appears on the federal registry, outlining which weapons countries will receive and over what period of time. Still, Stohl says she finds it hard to ignore some connection between the arms deal and the summit.

“The U.S. is trying everything it can in the Mideast to get people to act in the way it would like them to, ” Stohl says. “You use the variety of tools that you have. You use military sales, diplomacy, etcetera. “

Saudi Arabia: The star of the summit?

The media put Saudi Arabia in the spotlight when Saudi officials hinted they would attend the summit. Saudi Arabia has never directly negotiated with Israel and the summit could represent a diplomatic breakthrough for the two countries.

Knesset member Itzhaky said Israel was ready to establish diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, similar to the ones it has with Egypt and Jordan.

“Most of the talking between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been through the Americans, ” Itzhaky said. “It’s time for Saudi Arabia and Israel to talk directly. “

The Hudson Institute’s Wurmser says Saudi Arabia seeks to gain more than just improved relations with Israel. Like many other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia is threatened by Iran. Saudi Arabia felt the Iranian threat increase after a controversial statement in July by an Iranian leader that claimed Bahrain, a neighboring country to Saudi Arabia, was part of Iran.

“If nothing else it [Saudi Arabia’s attendance] sends a message to Iran and Syria that says listen, ‘we’re trying to organize the good guys in a bloc of some sort,’ ” Wurmser says.

But before any countries can form a bloc against Iran, the summit first has to happen. Bush has not formally invited any counties or released an exact date or location. There has been talk about the summit occurring in November in either New York or Washington. New York is the heavy favorite because the international stage will already be set there in November, when world leaders will convene for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Itzchaky warned that the international community should not get its hopes up for this super-summit just yet.

“I must say in the Middle East you have to be skeptical about any event that is supposed to happen in the future, ” he said.