"The idea that somehow the president of the United States would call an international meeting so that we could all have a photo op is very far-fetched," said American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a recent visit to the Middle East. "I think everyone expects it to be serious and substantive, and everybody expects it to address critical issues. We don't expect anything less. We can't simply continue to say we want a two-state solution; we have got to start to move towards one."
Those are strong words. The question is the degree of substance, creative thinking and intent behind those words.
Forty years after 1967, over l00 years since the beginning of the clash between the modern Jewish and Palestinian national movements, we are once again nearing a possible crossroads. There are skeptics who say that all the major protagonists - the host American administration led by President George W. Bush, the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian government led by President Mahmoud Abbas - are too weak to make any significant moves to advance a resolution of the conflict.
Yet one can argue that due to the debacle in Iraq, the Bush Administration needs a constructive achievement in the Middle East; and due to his political difficulties at home, Olmert needs a significant diplomatic success; and due to the struggle with Hamas, Abbas needs to demonstrate that the political option can achieve meaningful results.
The lessons of the failure of Camp David II in the summer of 2000 should guide all of the participants in the upcoming November conference. It should be clear that the conditions are not ripe for a total resolution of the conflict at one go. Yet there must be a serious effort to make real progress on the core issues - borders, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and security - to lay the foundation for future negotiations. A particular emphasis should be placed on improving the quality of life of the Palestinian people, in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, which means the removal of obstacles to freedom of movement, a genuine freeze on settlement activity and helping to restart the Palestinian economy - the main focus of this issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal - while paying attention to Israel's security needs.
A declaration of principles is not enough. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis need to see genuine progress on the ground. They need reasons to believe that hope is possible. And a clear declaration of the achievements should be announced at the end of the meeting. One of the failures of Camp David II, which led to the outbreak of the second intifada, was the lack of such a declaration at the end of the conference.
The Arab Peace Initiative, backed by the 22 Arab League states, which offers Israel recognition and normalization in exchange for withdrawal to the Green Line, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and an agreed-upon resolution of the refugee problem, provides important regional backing for progress. So does the appointment of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a high-profile envoy of the international Quartet.
There is no question that the Palestinian and Israeli peoples need progress towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The immediate question on the agenda is whether their leaderships have the political will, determination and courage to take advantage of this opportunity - and whether the international facilitators will demonstrate the necessary determination, creativity and wisdom.