Can Olmert transform the virtual peacemaking games?
You're the Israeli prime minister and you've just returned home, still suffused with the glow of having attended an international peace conference hosted by the US president, attended for the first time by all members of the Arab League and given prime-time and headline coverage by the global media.
Then suddenly, the reality on the ground rises up to slam you in the face. An Islamic Jihad suicide bomber strikes in downtown Jerusalem, killing 18 and wounding 100 people.
What next? Do you order a military action in Gaza or the West Bank? Call in the PA for emergency consultations? Announce a redoubling of efforts to finish the security fence?
Perhaps best to start with an address to the nation. But should the main message be Israeli security, the peace process, condemning Palestinian militancy or calling for greater cooperation with their leadership? And even before you make the speech, should you heed the advice of the hawks in your cabinet or the doves?
Whew! Being Israel's leader these days is certainly a tough job.
Luckily, the closest I'll probably come to dealing with the scenario described above is a computer game called PeaceMaker, which was created earlier this year by two students, one a former IDF intelligence officer, in Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology program.
"In PeaceMaker, gamers play as either the Palestinian president or Israeli prime minister as they attempt to lead their nation and their people toward a lasting international peace," goes the promotional material. "Players will encounter the same obstacles as real-life leaders, including protests, political pressures and acts of violence against soldiers and citizens alike."
The Peres Center for Peace has just purchased 100,000 copies of the game, which it will soon be giving away to selected Israelis and Palestinians. Everyone else can purchase it ($19.95) from the site http://www.peacemakergame.com, or just download a free demonstration copy.
I did the latter, and was impressed by the game's impressive graphics and detailed text. But now I'm not sure if now I feel the need to go ahead and get the whole game. After all, don't we already have what feels like a virtual peace process, created at an event in Annapolis that itself felt a little like an event taking place in some kind of alternative matrix-like reality?
In fact, in a few ways, the PeaceMaker fantasy world seems more grounded in reality than the real thing.
Why is that? Well, at least in PeaceMaker, we know that the players who begin the game as the Israeli PM and Palestinian president will be the same ones who finish it - something that is certainly far less certain in the Annapolis process, especially on the Israeli side.
The creators of this game also had the sense not to put any time limits on it. PeaceMaker ends when the players win by getting approval ratings from their respective publics up to a certain level, or lose when they drop too low.
That certainly makes more sense than putting an arbitrary one-year time limit on the negotiation of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, a deadline almost no one outside the Oval Office actually believes is realistic or constructive.
But most of all, PeaceMaker measures the progress (or lack thereof) of the peace process through a clearly defined set of criteria, so clear that they can be programmed into computer circuits.
Alas, the Annapolis process thus far lacks anything close to that level of clarity, and therein lies its biggest problem.
As has been noticed, it is not one, but three peace tracks that were laid down at Annapolis: the ongoing talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams that kick off next month; the biweekly discussions scheduled to take place between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; and the regular reports of Gen. James Jones, the American-appointed liaison who will monitor Israeli and Palestinian implementation of the conditions originally set down in the road map document, and reaffirmed by the parties this week.
What is so far missing is a clear statement, or even sense, of the relationship between these three tracks. If Olmert and Abbas are committed to such regular discussions at which they will discuss final-status issues, why exactly are the separate negotiating-team talks necessary, and which will do the heavy lifting?
More crucially, what exactly is the correlation between Jones's work and the ongoing talks?
If developments on the ground from either side - such as Israel removing outposts, or the PA cracking down on the terrorist infrastructure - fail to keep pace with developments at the negotiating table, does this mean the process grinds to a halt?
And how does the deadline set for the end of 2008 jibe with the basic road map concept that the process moves forward only by mutual compliance with those concrete steps, rather then according only to chronological signposts?
It's clear that so far, the process set in motion at Annapolis could well have used some of the ingenuity and exactitude that obviously went into creating the PeaceMaker game at Carnegie Mellon. The question now is whether Olmert and Abbas can transform the virtual peacemaking display staged by the Bush administration this week, at which they dutifully played their roles, into a genuine effort to find a solution to this conflict that doesn't necessarily take a computer to figure out.