The upshot of Wednesday’s open letter from six PSA Advisory Board members and two other distinguished former officials to President Bush and Secretary Rice is to urge them to think hard if they’re going to bet the farm on Middle East peace at Annapolis next month. According to the authors, if the upcoming summit fails, there will be “devastating consequences” for the US and the region. In fact, Annapolis represents a dangerously big gamble on a very long shot for lasting peace.
The pressure on the Administration to call for a new round of top-level Middle East peace talks is substantial. A few of the main drivers are: (1) that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group correctly identified Israeli-Palestinian peace as a potential linchpin of a larger Middle East settlement, which could calm Iraq while effectively containing Iran; (2) that any serious conversation with Arab or Muslim leaders about the US role in the Middle East invariably includes a diatribe against our support for the “Israeli occupation;” (3) that the longer Palestinians live without a single, sovereign, responsible government, the more their political life comes to resemble Iraq’s civil war; and (4) that the Israelis themselves have for the first time put partitioning Jerusalem on the table.
It is also significant that the Israeli and US governments have developed a closer working relationship under Bush and Olmert than under previous leaders. This fact may have persuaded the President that he can broker a diplomatic triumph at Annapolis to temporarily clear Iraq from the headlines and even salvage the foreign policy legacy of his presidency.
But consider for a moment the less auspicious circumstances of a November summit.
The letter’s authors correctly caution against sidelining Hamas or Syria from the dialog, which would increase their likelihood of playing a spoiler role and result in “escalating violence from the West Bank or from Gaza, either of which would overwhelm any political achievement.” Yet it is not clear that Hamas or Syria will participate in comprehensive final status talks with Israel under any circumstances. And even if they do, recent history suggests there will be other spoilers, who will find a way to upset any deal from which they do not extract maximum profit.
One likely spoiler is a resurgent Hezbollah, a powerful quasi-state operating outside the effective control of the Lebanese or Syrian governments. Hezbollah has the ability to rain terror on Northern Israel and possibly even drag the Israelis into another incursion into Syria or Lebanon. An even more troubling potential spoiler is Iran, which would undercut any Israeli-Arab progress it perceived as a threat to its ambitions in Iraq or its bid to unite and lead the Muslim world on an anti-Israel platform.
All of this underlines the importance of inclusion. Yet we cannot dictate terms to Syria or Hamas, and they may not come prepared to make concessions, assuming they come at all. Likewise, even if we somehow wrangle a commitment from Hezbollah and Iran not to undermine the deal, there will be other outsiders to this latest process whose status as potential spoilers by itself will magnify their power.
Success at Annapolis would yield huge dividends for the US, Israel, and the Arab states, which is doubtless why the administration seems resolved to move forward in November, whether or not it heeds the letter writers’ advice. But even under the best of circumstances, a final settlement is far from guaranteed to emerge from next month’s talks, and what happens afterward is largely out of American hands.
Sound foreign policy, like all good decision making, requires us to look not only at the benefits of success, but to consider the costs of failure and the likelihood of each outcome. A US-led Middle East summit in November 2007 is a gamble: the upside would be fantastic, but the odds are worse than even and a loss could cost us the farm.