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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Q&A: Middle East peace conference
Middle East analyst Gerald Butt looks at the latest US proposals for an international peace summit and assesses its chances of success.

What is at stake in the summit proposal?

While an international conference to launch the Middle East peace initiative was held in Madrid in 1991, most efforts to achieve peace over recent years have focused on United States mediation efforts.

Now, once again, an attempt is being made to put together an international umbrella - comprising not only the United States, but also Russia, the European Union and the UN.

The Arab world would be represented by the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Morocco.

The hope is that an international forum will provide the impetus for a new drive for peace as well as the guarantees that each side in the conflict might seek as part of any agreement.

The stakes are high. Failure could see the region slip into a state of war again, because US efforts in the past to mediate have failed, and the current US administration is not willing to engage directly in the way that President Bill Clinton did.

What would be the likely focus of the summit?

The principle underlying the peace process that was started by the Madrid conference was land-for-peace - with Israel withdrawing from occupied Arab land, thus clearing the way for the establishment of a Palestinian state and a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement.

The proposed international conference is likely to focus on the same basic theme.

Only when this extremely complex and emotive issue has been resolved will the conference be able to move onto other subjects that US Secretary of State Colin Powell said should be tackled - security, economic reform, humanitarian matters and "the way forward".

Why are the Americans getting involved now?

President George W Bush has come under criticism from large sections of the international community for not doing more to restrain Israel during its military forays into West Bank cities, and for failing to engage sufficiently to end the violence.

In particular the criticism has come from America's friends in the Arab world, where anti-US feelings have never been stronger.

This fact was conveyed firmly to President Bush by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah during their recent meeting in Crawford, Texas.

The Crown Prince has already presented his own peace initiative - which was later adopted at an Arab summit in Beirut. The US president clearly saw an opportunity to work with the Saudi Crown Prince to arrange an international conference.

In this way he would be able to deflect criticism about his unwillingness to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

At the same time, it would avoid the need to engage directly in the dispute.

A further motive for the US supporting the conference idea relates to Iraq. President Bush urgently needs the Middle East conflict to come off the boil if the US is to stand any chance of winning the support of Egypt and the Gulf states for plans to use military might to change the regime in Baghdad.

Is it a good time for a summit or is it being rushed?

Both. The need for some political and diplomatic action to end a conflict that was looking dangerously like getting out of control has never been greater.

Nevertheless, there is concern that all the interested parties to the proposed conference could have very different expectations of what it should achieve.

Preparing the ground and setting the framework for the discussions will be extremely difficult. Whether this can be achieved before the summer is open to doubt.

A badly prepared summit has no chance of success.

What are its chances of success?

In a word: slim. The devil will be in the details. For example, even if the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, were to publicly agree to the principle of land for peace (an idea that he has thus far rejected), then he is unlikely ever to agree to a complete withdrawal from all the territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

Nor will he agree to the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And it is inconceivable that Mr Sharon would accept that Arab East Jerusalem should be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The Israeli prime minister will be emboldened in his defiance by the recent Congressional endorsement of Israel's offensive against the Palestinians.

The Arabs, on the other hand, will see the vote as a further sign of the way in which the US's Middle East policy is being influenced by the pro-Israel lobby in Congress.

Congress is presenting the military activities of the Sharon government as part of the international war on terrorism.

The Arabs, at the Beirut summit, for the first time publicly offered to make peace with Israel. But they know, too, that without strong US pressure on Israel, there is no chance whatsoever of the Sharon government agreeing to their most basic demands concerning territory or any of the other major issues.

So while, in the absence of any other peace initiative, the Arabs are likely to attend the proposed international conference, they will do so without any hope of it meeting their fundamental aspirations.

Links to more Middle East stories are at the foot of the page.


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