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Mideast Sirens

Henry Kissinger once wrote that "when enough bureaucratic prestige has been invested in a policy it is easier to see it fail than to abandon it." So it is with the Obama Administration's latest efforts to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The prospects for success are bleak, but everyone still wants to give it that old State Department try.

The hopeful news, to the extent some exists, is that both sides will engage in "direct" talks after nearly two years of "proximity" sparring. The U.S. will host and presumably midwife the early September talks in which the two sides will have to confront their major differences face to face. Optimists suggest that this could be another 1979 moment, when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat both took an unlikely leap against their own histories and signed an Israeli-Egyptian peace.

The fundamentals today argue against such a joint leap. Israel is less secure now than it was then, especially with the rise of Iran as a menacing regional power. Tehran has supplied its proxy, Hezbollah, with 45,000 rockets aimed at Israel from across the border in Lebanon—despite Condoleezza Rice's assurances that the U.N. would stop the rocket supply after the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war.

Iran also arms Hamas, which now controls Gaza and is sworn to Israel's destruction. Syria is as much part of Iran's orbit as it was two years ago, despite much U.S. pleading and high-profile visits to Damascus by John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi.

These realities understandably make Israel determined to keep a military presence on the West Bank border with Jordan as part of any new Palestinian statehood—to prevent the West Bank from becoming another Lebanon or Gaza. Israel also wants a long phase-in of any withdrawal from the West Bank, again as a way of building confidence in long-term security.

This will all be difficult for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to accept. Even if he does, Hamas will denounce any peace treaty and use violence to sabotage it. Hamas abruptly ceased its reconciliation talks with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, merely because the PA agreed to participate in the September direct talks with Israel.

Mr. Abbas also wants a Palestinian exile "right of return" to Israel that no Israeli government can accept, lest it guarantee a majority Palestinian future on its soil. Then there's the dispute over dividing Jerusalem, the Israeli capital that Israelis also won't cede to the PA to the extent Mr. Abbas is seeking.

The U.S. will no doubt try to squeeze both sides to compromise, especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has the kind of hawkish credibility that might let him sell concessions to the Israeli public. But he also leads a balky left-right coalition that could break apart if he concedes too much.

Rather than squeeze peace from these stones, the U.S. might make more progress with both Israel and Mr. Abbas if it stopped Iran's march toward becoming a nuclear power. Israelis and Arabs saw on the weekend that Iran began loading fuel into its (ostensibly civilian) nuclear reactor at Bushehr, with the help of Russian fuel rods and no objection from the U.S. Russia says it will control the rods and return them to Russia, but any rods that disappear could be turned into weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran's march to nuclear status is the security threat that dominates the region because it would instantly transform every nation's strategic calculations. Israel is less likely to cede more territory for promises of peace if it knows that Hamas and Hezbollah are suddenly backed by an Iranian bomb. A diminished Iran with a shuttered or damaged nuclear program wouldn't guarantee that Israel and the Palestinians could agree to a peace, but it would improve the chances.

The White House and U.N. officials argue that, whatever the long odds, there is no harm in trying. But sometimes there is harm in trying and failing. Mr. Obama is putting his own prestige on the line, and that supply is not unlimited. A loud failure might weaken Mr. Abbas's political position among the Palestinians, while inflaming anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, Turkey and elsewhere. We certainly hope for the best, but the White House and Pentagon should prepare for the consequences of failure.



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The State Dept"s effort is a triumph of process over purpose. The problem is not that Bibi cannot be pressed to give enough, but that he is prepared to give anything at all. The construction freeze has yielded nothing from the Arabs and now they go to talks threatening to walk out if Israel does anything that displeases them. The Arabs have had their chance for a state and rejected it because they would rather have a state of semi-war than accept a Jewish state. The USA and all the other influence peddlars should butt out. There will only be peace when Israel tells the Arabs what it will keep and what limited rights it will allow the Arabs in their self administered enclaves. And if the Arabs or the international community does not like it, they can jump. Israel must defy the internatioanally backed conceit of the Arabs, that after launching wars that they lost, it is their Allah given right to dictate Israel"s terms of surrender.

Posted by paul2 on 2010-08-25 11:37:42 GMT