RAMALLAH, WEST BANK—In the evermore intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration has tried both the hands-off and hands-on approaches. Neither has worked. Critics blame the administration for failing to "engage," but when it does, the attempt tends to backfire. It's happened twice before—in Palestinian elections, then in the Gaza civil war. Now another well-intentioned blunder may be in store with its promised Mideast peace summit in Annapolis, Md., which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week appeared to push back from November to "sometime before the end of the year."
The administration's goal has been to strengthen moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and weaken the Islamic militant movement Hamas. The Palestinians, though, have not cooperated. In January 2006, the United States pressed for parliamentary elections, expecting Abbas's Fatah party to win, then was shocked when it lost to Hamas. In June, the United States urged Abbas's presidential guard to assert its authority over Hamas militias in Gaza, only to see Hamas emerge in exclusive control of the volatile strip.
Fearing Hamas's momentum would carry over to the more critical West Bank, Rice urgently began organizing a peace summit, reasoning that if Abbas could show his people a "political horizon" to statehood, they would follow his conciliatory path and reject Hamas. Another factor: President Bush is eager to recognize a Palestinian state as his legacy in the peace process.
But last month, Abbas reiterated to Rice the regional consensus that the summit is shaping up as a fiasco. Abbas told Rice, according to a Palestinian official, that "failure will bring disaster on American interests in the region. It will boost al Qaeda, Hamas, and all the extremists and undermine the moderates." In that event, Abbas told her, he would resign as president of the Palestinian Authority.
The summit isn't getting traction because Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are so far apart on the "core issues"—borders, Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees. Each leader has little maneuvering room. Abbas is straitjacketed by both Fatah and Hamas; Olmert is hemmed in both by hawks in his ruling coalition and the right-wing opposition led by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
So it's no wonder that Rice and Olmert are at pains to lower expectations. The deal is simply not there. Given the possible consequences of failure, it's an open question whether the summit will come off at all.
Wary neighbors. The plan is for Arab leaders to attend, thereby signaling to the Palestinians their support for moderation over extremism. But the inherent stalemate between Abbas and Olmert is keeping Arab leaders away. The key moderate Arab regimes—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—do not want any part of a diplomatic flop. With understatement, Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit cautioned that rushing into holding the meeting "may damage opportunities to achieve a just peace."
The would-be summit grows out of a view, be it hopeful or desperate, that the Hamas takeover in Gaza offers a rare opportunity to isolate Palestinian extremists and raise up the moderates, led by Abbas. To that end, the United States and the European Union have transferred hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, funds that western governments had frozen while Hamas shared power with Fatah. The money has plainly improved the quality of life in the West Bank. Nearly 100,000 PA employees are once again bringing home paychecks, while infrastructure projects are sprouting for the first time in years. The West Bank's 2 million Palestinians can now see and feel that the western-oriented politics pays, literally, while Islamism doesn't.
But despite the will of optimists like Rice and special Middle East envoy Tony Blair, the injection of funds to the West Bank shows no signs of bulking up support for Abbas or opposition to Hamas. Palestinians hold deep resentment and mistrust for the Bush administration and the West in general. Commonly, they accuse the donors of foisting a democratic election on them, then punishing them for voting the "wrong way" by cutting off the PA's funds and trying to make it impossible for Hamas to govern in Gaza. Says Salah Ayoub, an attorney in Jenin: "The U.S. is mistaken if it thinks money buys moderation. Many people here will happily take the money, but that does not necessarily mean they will cheer for Fatah."