US graybeards for inclusive talks

To succeed, next month’s Israeli-Palestinian conference should establish and endorse the contours of a permanent peace accord and secure the participation of Arab states that do not currently recognise Israel, including Syria, according to a letter sent Wednesday to President Bush from a bipartisan group of eight former top US policy-makers.

The conference should also be used to launch Israeli-Syrian peace talks and lay the groundwork for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, the first step toward engaging Hamas, in the larger peace effort, according to the letter, which was signed by the national security advisers to former US national security advisers, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft.

The letter comes amid intensified exchanges between Abbas and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert in advance of next month’s conference, and follows the publication late last month of another letter from five former senior US diplomats with lengthy service in the Middle East. It urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to intensify her own mediation efforts to ensure a successful outcome.

That letter called on Washington to offer its own “bridging proposals” and make far more use of the “Quartet’s” new special envoy, former British PM Tony Blair, to narrow differences between the two sides in the run-up to the meeting.

Both letters stressed that any final communiqué coming out of the November conference should include mutually agreed understandings between Israel and the Palestinians on five key issues that are considered central to any final settlement. Those understandings should then be enshrined in a new UN Security Council resolution.

They include the creation of two states based on the 1967 Green Line with minor, reciprocal, and agreed-upon modifications through one-to-one land swaps; recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of both the Israeli and Palestinians states, with Jewish neighbourhoods to fall under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighbourhoods under Palestinian sovereignty; and with special arrangements for the Old City guaranteeing unimpeded access by each community to their holy places.

The two letters also called for mutually agreed understandings on the Palestinian refugee problem and on the creation of security mechanisms that that would address Israeli concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty. While Wednesday’s letter praised the Bush administration’s decision to invite Syria to Annapolis, it added that Washington should follow up with “genuine engagement” with Damascus.

As for Hamas, both letters called for a reversal of US policy. “We believe that a dialogue with the organisation is far preferable to its isolation,” the Wednesday letter asserted, suggesting that it could be conducted indirectly through the UN and Blair. “Promoting a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza is a good starting point. If Syria or Hamas is ostracised, prospects that they will play a spoiler role increase dramatically,” the letter warned.

“The administration is finally showing some political will to move on Middle East peacemaking,” noted Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator “It must now combine that with political skill to achieve positive results, and a good place to start would be listening to wise and experienced counsel.” — IPS