The Other Half of the Peace Process

PRINCETON - American officials usually spend enormous energy highlighting the “process” in the Middle East “peace process.” Only in the last 18 months of a second term president or following a military engagement in the Middle East does the United States actually start to concern itself with “peace.”

This pattern seems to be holding true for next week’s US-sponsored Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. The difference now is that, unlike the Madrid Conference after the 1991 American-led Gulf War, the current effort is coming after a perceived American defeat in Iraq.

Assuming that the Bush administration is serious in its current efforts, the US must have a Plan B in case the talks fail. For Palestinians, the main concern is to avoid negative repercussions if they do. Unlike former President Bill Clinton, who blamed Yassir Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, the Bush administration must honor its commitment not to point fingers or allow either side to use failure to advance its strategic goals.

Palestinian negotiators have always had to balance three issues: historic rights, current realities, and the price of using their negative power. For Palestinians, the code words for historic rights –liberating Palestinian land, securing the right of return for refugees, and insisting on a truly independent state – are “international legitimacy.” For both the PLO and Hamas, this refers to various UN resolutions and international public opinion, which have amounted to little more than lip service on the part of Western powers and Arab and Islamic leaders, whose statements raise false hopes, enticing Palestinian negotiators to harden their positions.