US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to galvanize substantive progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front in the course of her current visit to Israel and a regional meeting planned for later in the year will have limited impact on the Middle East, several Israeli foreign policy experts said on Wednesday.
"The critical question is whether Israel and the Palestinian Authority are in a position to have meaningful negotiations on issues of permanent status," said Dore Gold, who was Israeli ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1999, during the prime ministership of the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu. "The hardest problem that the US will face is the weakness of [PA Chairman] Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, an issue that maybe cannot be ameliorated by money and guns alone."
"It is difficult to have negotiations if one of the parties faces its own internal meltdown," Gold continued, referring to the Fatah movement, which he said was suffering from a leadership crisis and showing signs of disintegration.
The former ambassador believes that a significant amount of time needs to be spent on building institutions and civil society among the Palestinians before the West burdens them with negotiations.
Although the US has been making an effort to get more Arab states involved in the negotiations, Gold does not think the presence of additional nations can compensate for the fundamental flaws within Fatah.
According to Gold, America is still being driven by the same vision of Palestinian statehood that was proposed in 2002, even though conditions in the region have changed dramatically. For instance, he said, "Were Israel to withdraw from the Jordan Valley [as part of a process of relinquishing territory] in order to create a Palestinian state, it would create a vacuum that would draw in radical Islamic forces like al-Qaida from Iraq and Hizbullah from Lebanon."
This would cause a major destabilization, he said. "An Israeli pullout from the Jordan Valley would replicate the disaster that was created in the Philadelphi Corridor along the Gaza-Egyptian-Sinai border, which became a conduit for movement of weapons and volunteers into the Gaza Strip," he said.
Alon Liel, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and former foreign affairs adviser to Labor's Ehud Barak, is also highly skeptical about the prospects for progress, but for very different reasons.
Focusing first on the US plan for a regional conference, he stressed that Syria and Saudi Arabia should have been invited to attend from the beginning. "Everything regarding this conference is very unclear at the moment," he said. "[But] if it is only made up of countries that recognize Israel, then these are exactly the countries we don't need [to set up special meetings in order] to talk with."
Liel's deeper critique related to American and Israeli attitudes to the changing Palestinian polity, and the determination to focus on Abbas while trying to maintain the boycott of Hamas. "Personally, I think the Americans are making a historic mistake by widening the gap between Hamas and Fatah," he said. "By doing so, and declaring half of the Palestinians good guys and half of them bad guys, they are destroying the people. You can't build a country for only half the people."
Rice, he said, "has to listen not only to [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, but to experts on the Middle East."
"At this point, I don't think we can move forward on the political level," Liel added. The only thing that could be accomplished right now "might be improving the [Palestinians'] humanitarian and economic situation. But for this we don't need an international conference."
Meanwhile, Zalman Shoval, a former Likud MK who served as ambassador to the United States from 1990 until 1993 and again from 1998 to 2000, expressed concern that the US might place unacceptable pressure on Israel as it tried to draw Saudi Arabia into a peace process.
"This visit by Secretary Rice must be seen as part of the effort to influence the political decisions of the Arab world as a whole, and in particular Saudi Arabia," Shoval said.
The US was trying to woo the Saudis, in part through its planned massive arms sales to them, he said, and was seeking to offset opposition to the deal by linking it with boosted defense aid to Israel.
"The Israeli government, at this point, will go along with the US diplomatic steps," said Shoval, "but it should be aware of the possibility that, in order to garner the support of Saudi Arabia, the US will use the [planned regional] conference to put pressure on Israel beyond even what the Olmert government may be willing to do."
He added that "officially, the US administration has said that the supply of additional weapons to Saudi Arabia is necessary because of the Iranian threat, but several experts in the US have expressed doubt whether additional arms to the Arab world can really make an important contribution to this aim."