Secretary Rice will host the principals of the Quartet tomorrow in Washington. It will be the first Quartet meeting during the German presidency of the EU and with the new UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon (the Russians make up the foursome). Question is, almost four years after launching a Road Map that has gone nowhere and six years since the last Israeli-Palestinian official political negotiations at Taba, whether anything will actually move this time or will it be more declarations and platitudes? Somewhat surprisingly the prospects are not all bleak.
The situation on the ground is clearly not encouraging with two disturbing competitions being held in parallel. One is over whether more Palestinians can be killed by their own people or by the Israelis. The other, a more internal Israeli affair, over which public figure can be ensnared in the most damaging scandal. In such a predicament, it would be all too easy for the Quartet to cry "gevalt," nothing can be done. Easy but wrong. One of, if admittedly not the sole, reason for the ongoing deterioration at so many levels is that collectively the parties, the US and the international community have failed to generate any peace process dynamic or hope for the last six years. At best, there have been piecemeal attempts at day-to-day crisis management. But surely by now, someone must have realized that the piecemeal arrangements cannot be sustained in the absence of a political horizon. A statement made by Secretary Rice in Kuwait City on her most recent Middle East visit suggests the message may be getting through: "it seems to me that it may be more difficult to negotiate a provisional state than just to go to the end game." But pursuing a new political process while simultaneously discouraging Palestinian President Abbas from reaching a cohabitation government of national unity with Hamas is very unlikely to create the conditions for success. The idea that there could be a decisive military victory - either for the Abbas government against Hamas in Palestine or by the Siniora government against Hizbullah in Lebanon - remains part of the delusional ideological myopia of this administration. So, too, is the dogged determination with which the administration continues to isolate Syria from the political process, virtually guaranteeing a continued Syrian spoiler role on the Palestinian issue (and in Lebanon and Iraq for that matter). In a complex region, Syria has become a decidedly transparent actor, their message: include us and we play ball on Hizbullah, Hamas, our Iraqi Sunni friends and we can even talk about Iran - exclude us and it's more of the same. Of course, one cannot accept all of Syria's position - but only by having the conversation can we establish if common ground exists.
The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group got it right when they called for a renewed US effort at Israeli-Arab peacemaking on all fronts, for re-engagement with Syria and for a major push on an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement. Of course these recommendations were not so much rejected by President Bush, as ideologically pilloried. Many Democrats and some Republicans too have called for a diplomatic surge as a key part of the alternative to Bush's military escalation plan (or "staying the course plus 20,000"). That diplomatic surge should include the convening of an Iraq International Support Group with all the neighbors and key international actors, talks with Syria and Iran, and a push on the Israeli-Arab front. Part of that diplomatic surge needs to begin tomorrow with the Washington-hosted Quartet meeting.
A tri-lateral summit with the US, Israelis and Palestinians is being considered for later this month. The Quartet should welcome and encourage such a summit and clearly fix its goal as a renewal of the six-year moribund Israeli-Palestinian process of political negotiations. But is Secretary Rice ready to push a political process that addresses the big issues or is she still stuck in a Road Map cul-de-sac of her own making? This administration may continue to reject what is evident to the rest of us, namely the dramatically helpful regional repercussions of a successful effort on the Israeli-Palestinian track. But it would be a splendid irony if an administration that has done so many of the wrong things without understanding their broader negative regional implications, would do this one right thing, oblivious to its positive knock-on effect.