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(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
A failure to advance the peace process at next month's conference in Annapolis could trigger worse violence than the second intifada that followed the failed Camp David talks in 2000, Marc Otte, the EU's Special Representative to the Middle East Process, said Monday.
"The cost of failure is even bigger then in 2000," Otte told reporters in Brussels.
There were many more destabilizing elements in the Middle East now than there were seven years ago, he said.
Among those he listed were the threat of a nuclear Iran, the danger that Iraq would split, the strengthening of Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
Otte said he agreed with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she cited a favorite quote from the movie Apollo 13: "Failure is not an option."
"We are starting on that basis," Otte said.
The main question regarding the Annapolis meeting was not why would it work this time when it failed before, but rather, "What do we lose if it does not succeed," he said.
That provides a lot of incentive for Israelis and Palestinians to find a way to break the impasse, he said, adding that there was a "sufficient convergence of political will not to let it go this time."
Even a small step forward would suffice, such as the issuance of a joint statement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he said.
"How long has it been since an Israeli and a Palestinian leader have come to an agreement, even if they are rather vague [with details], even if it is just the parameters for solving the conflict," Otte said.
Such a statement might "look modest, but given what happened in the last six years it would be quite an achievement," he said.
Adel Atieh, an adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the EU, said that such a statement could announce an agreement by both sides that a Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank, the principles of any potential land swap and a timetable for implementation.
Speaking after Otte, Atieh said the conference was an opportunity, but also a challenge that put Abbas in a tough spot. If he attended and came back empty-handed, he will be accused of weakness and lose legitimacy among Palestinians, but if he refused to go, he would be accused of sabotaging peace efforts, said Atieh.
If a joint statement was issued, Otte said, movement would start slowly, but could gain momentum exponentially.
That's particularly true given that there will likely be Arab countries attending who do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, Otte said.
If no progress was made, "Abbas will disappear and then you [Israelis] will have Hamas to deal with," said Otte.
Otte also said that if the Middle East did not achieve stability, it would be a "black hole in globalization" with no prospect for a better future.
With respect to the split between Hamas and Fatah, Otte said a way needed to be found to reintegrate Hamas with the Palestinian people. The problem, he said, was that while Hamas was part of the Palestinian people, it was also being used by Syria and Iran as an instrument of asymmetric warfare.
Hamas, he said, had to decide if it wanted to change so it could join the international community or if wanted to become a puppet of anti-Western rogue regimes.
Regarding the lack of European response to the Israel Air Force's reported strike on Syria on September 6, Otte said, "We didn't react because Israel didn't tell us what happened. Honestly, what was more striking is that Syria didn't want to say what happened. If both sides are shutting up about it, it is either because it is totally unimportant or very important."
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