When Ariel Sharon decided to isolate Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, he realized he would be accused of deliberately blocking diplomatic channels if he didn't find an alternative form of dialogue with the Palestinians. Sharon's answer: A regional conference of Israel, moderate Arab states and Palestinians -- but not Arafat -- to be convened under American auspices.
The conference would focus on condemning terror, defining a roadmap to Palestinian statehood and widening the circle of Middle Eastern countries at peace with Israel. The terms of reference would include the recent Saudi peace initiative based on the principle of land for peace and an Israeli counterproposal emphasizing the need for a long-term interim arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians before final borders are determined.
Sharon formally raised the idea in an otherwise tough early April speech in the Knesset. He then put it to visiting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in their April 12 meeting in Jerusalem, and Powell immediately began to run with it.
Israel officials say the conference could convene as easrly as six weeks. Inside Israel, the idea has broad support across the political spectrum, aside from the far-right parties. It is a bold idea and, if it gets off the ground, could herald the first signs of real progress in Middle East peacemaking since the inconclusive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Taba in January 2001.
The reason the conference idea might fly is that it appeals strongly to several of the major players. The trouble is that most of them mean different things by it.
As the various sides try to outmaneuver each other in laying down the ground rules, they could end up smothering the parley before it starts.
For Israel, the conference idea provides several bonuses. It enables Sharon to offer the Palestinians a "political horizon" without seeming to be rewarding terror. Sharon can dangle the prospect of a conference while still insisting he won't actually hold political negotiations with the Palestinians until violence stops.
By widening the negotiating framework to include other players and issues, Sharon can argue that the new Palestinian track is a natural adjunct of the wider process, and not a case of Israel being forced to the negotiating table by violence, even if terror does not subside altogether.
Moreover, Israeli officials believe the Palestinians would be reluctant to forfeit the chance to reap major political gains via the international community and would be under enormous pressure to maintain a de facto cease-fire before, during and after the conference, provided that it leads to a viable peace process. A successful conference will put the onus on the Palestinian side to keep the peace.
Even if there is no immediate progress from a conference, Sharon will gain time. The premier envisions an ongoing mechanism akin to the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, when an international gathering of several days was followed by committees that tackled the issues on a continuing basis.
Sharon feels that such a system now would create a counterterrorism dynamic, and improve Israel's international image. Sharon stands to make domestic gains, too. By initiating a parley along the lines of the Madrid conference, Sharon takes on the mantle of potential peacemaker. He also hints that he is going back to basics, wiping out the errors of the failed Oslo process and building peace on more solid foundations.
For the United States, the conference primarily would be a means of pacifying the region in advance of a planned strike against Iraq. Quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian front, according to the U.S. analysis, would make it much easier for moderate Arab states to go along with moves to induce regime change in Baghdad.
The Americans also believe a conference would enable them to convince Arab states with a major stake in regional stability, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to pressure the Palestinians to move forward.
U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says a conference would have to be based on three principles: Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, an end to violence and a clear denunciation of terror by the Arab moderates. All this would provide a modicum of regional stability as a launching pad for Operation Saddam Hussein.
For the moderate Arab states, a conference would provide a chance to play a highly visible and prestigious role in Middle East peacemaking. It also could provide an opening for better ties with the United States, while ostensibly backing Palestinian interests. Egypt already has indicated its willingness to participate -- as long as the conference picks up where previous negotiations broke off, a condition that may not be acceptable to Israel.
Of all the interested parties, it is the Palestinians who stand to gain the most: Israeli withdrawal, international observers, early statehood, Arab and international pressure for Israeli concessions and an American and European "Marshall plan" to rebuild Palestinian ruins.
Arafat long has called to internationalize the conflict, and a conference would be internationalization in spades.
But there are problems. First, there is the question of participants: Will the Arabs come if Sharon insists on keeping Arafat out? Powell is trying to finesse the issue by talking about a conference at ministerial level, but it's unclear if the Arab side will buy it.
Syria rejected the proposal on Tuesday in the Al-Ba'ath newspaper, run by Syria's ruling party, calling it a "dirty manuever that is totally rejected." Sharon's vision of a conference of "moderate" Arab states surely excludes Syria, and Damascus might, through Hezbollah, heat up Israel's northern border to provoke an Israeli attack and torpedo the peace conference.
And the European Union and the United Nations, which Israel wants out, and the Palestinians say must be included? Sharon could find himself sucked into a full-fledged international conference -- rather than the U.S.-led meeting he desires -- and a situation of pressure on Israel that he never anticipated.
Then there is the agenda. Can an Israeli plan for an interim settlement mesh with the Saudi and Palestinian insistence on a final deal?
On the Israeli left, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami predicts the conference will fail unless it adopts the parameters laid out on the core permanent status issues -- borders, Jerusalem and refugees -- by former President Bill Clinton in December 2000. The conference's mandate, Ben-Ami says, should be to close the gaps that remain beyond the Clinton parameters.
On the Israeli right, Knesset member Yuval Steinitz argues that the conference will fail because the timing is wrong: The United States should change the regime in Iraq and then hold the regional conference, not the other way around, he says.
The Palestinians, Steinitz says, deliberately have been creating instability to defer or deter an American attack on Iraq, and it will be impossible to get any concessions from them until Hussein has been removed.
But the biggest problem remains the fundamental question of substance: Can Sharon, supremely mistrustful of Palestinian intentions, put anything on the table that the Palestinians could accept? Conversely, is Arafat, whose direct role in Palestinian terror now has been clearly documented, ready to make a deal with Israel on any terms?
If they can't bridge the gaps on substance, how effective can a conference prove over time in lowering violence? Powell clearly hopes a conference would promote stability, even if it doesn't solve all the problems.
Indeed, the conference idea assumed added urgency for Powell when he visited Israel's northern border and saw for himself how Israel could slide into war with Syria and Lebanon. Powell's hastily arranged visits to Beirut and Damascus seemed to cool that situation, at least for now. His next hurdle on the way to a conference is a Palestinian declaration denouncing terror -- and ending hostilities.