Hirsh: A Dangerous Middle Eastern Game

"Frankly," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared earlier this week, "it is time for the establishment of a Palestinian state." Her boss, George W. Bush, echoed her at a White House news briefing on Wednesday in commenting on the big peace conference planned for Annapolis, Md., by the end of autumn. "I'm feeling pretty optimistic about it," the president said with a smile.

They are raising expectations; it is a dangerous game. We've learned the hard way that, in the Mideast, expectations that go unmet have a habit of crashing, burning—and continuing to burn out of control. I mean, is this really the time for a state, with the Palestinians embroiled in a virtual civil war? With Hamas, the most popular political movement in the Palestinian territories, still sworn to Israel's destruction, firing hundreds of missiles into the Jewish state from garrisoned Gaza? With Israeli forces unlikely to leave the West Bank in the foreseeable future—perhaps ever, having recognized that their unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza both turned into strategic nightmares? Or does the timing have more to do with the fact that Bush has only 15 months left to secure a legacy beyond the mess he will leave behind in Iraq?

The stakes of failure at the peace conference are very high for the United States, says longtime U.S. Mideast envoy Dennis Ross. If Bush and Rice don't succeed now, what's left of American credibility in the region could be destroyed. The beneficiaries will be all the bad guys: Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran and maybe even Al Qaeda. "It would benefit Hamas more than anything else," says Ross. "Hamas says diplomacy is futile. You would validate what they're saying." The Saudis are especially worried about a further demonstration of American impotence after Iraq, he says. "It's something that, to them, Iran will be able to exploit very effectively."

Yes, politically both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas need a deal a right now. Rice recognizes that. Olmert needs a deal because he's had precious little success at anything and because the Kadima Party he heads was formed specifically to address the demographic time bomb that most Israelis now recognize will explode in their faces if the Palestinians living in the occupied territories and the Arabs in Israel begin to outnumber the Jews. That could eventually turn Israel into an apartheid-type state, with a Jewish minority ruling over a majority of Arabs and therefore facing international pressure to hand over more power to them. Abbas needs a deal because statehood—and peace—is his only counterclaim to Hamas's popularity as the champion of Palestinian hopes and dreams.

But Condi's frenetic efforts at legacy-building this week feel uncomfortably like 2000, when President Clinton's grandiose effort to put all the issues on the table at Camp David in July of that year ended in failure, leading to an explosion of Palestinian anger and a second intifada. What then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described hopefully as "the psychology of peace" descended into the psychology of war. Israelis say that is their biggest concern about the ballooning expectations this week (and no doubt the main reason why Rice, after meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, dialed back on some of her earlier statements, calling the Annapolis conference a mere "stop in the process"). "We don't want to repeat that," says one Israeli official. "We are concerned about whole thing blowing up."

Even if Olmert and Abbas—who have now engaged in six rounds of talks—come to an understanding, the Israeli military is not going to leave the new West Bank ministate anytime soon. That is the bitter lesson of Gaza. "If Israel withdrew from the security barrier of the West Bank, you would have rockets [into Israel] tomorrow," says Ross. "You can't have unilateral withdrawal. Lebanon and Gaza only emboldened Hamas and Hizbullah." Thus, if Abbas does get a state, it will almost certainly be an occupied one for a long time to come. Along with occupied Iraq, that will not go over well in the Arab world.

Olmert and Abbas, despite their common desire for a pact, still face huge obstacles. The Israelis are seeking ambiguity on some issues and firm timetables on other issues—and the Palestinians are looking for the same thing on different issues. "The Palestinians will want to fudge on what they're doing on refugees"—effectively giving up the "right of return" to Israel while not quite admitting that, says Ross. "The Israelis will want to fudge on what they're going to do on Jerusalem and borders. That's one gap. There's a second gap in terms of timetables. The Israelis don't have problems with the [swift] implementation of Palestinian security. The Palestinians have a big problem with promising that, while the Israelis have a big problem [in putting a timetable] to sovereignty and giving up East Jerusalem. The third big gap is when would a final agreement be fully resolved. Abbas wants a six-month timetable. And the Israelis want to see what he's doing on the ground" in imposing security before committing to such a specific date.

Still, the Annapolis conference is worth trying, even if it is years too late. If a statement of common goals can be conceived, it will provide at least one counterpoint to the psychology of hopelessness that prevails throughout the region. And the effort could isolate Hamas in a positive way, rather than simply attempting to starve the group into submission. "If you have the Palestinian people rallying behind something serious, then you might find Hamas's power diminishing," says an Arab diplomat. He adds that there is another clock that is ticking: in Iraq. "If there is no peace process and Iraq begins to fall apart in seven or eight months as the surge comes to end, there could be terrible spillover," he says. "The next thing you may well see is Al Qaeda in Palestinian towns and villages."

So, by all means go down this road, Madame Secretary, because you must. But leave no illusions that there is a rainbow at the end of it.