INEVITABLY, debate about an endgame for the Iraq war has been dominating political discourse in the United States. But another fateful matter is looming: the November summit in Washington, at which Israelis, Palestinians, and leaders from Arab states will be encouraged to draw up principles to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This will be a risky, difficult undertaking. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is politically weak, and so is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. There are determined spoilers waiting to sabotage any meaningful accord or exploit a flagrant failure. Still, the summit is a gamble worth taking.
Israel needs the security and regional acceptance that can only come with a negotiated end to its occupation of the West Bank. The Palestinians, riven by the rivalry between Abbas's Fatah faction and the Islamist movement Hamas, face a future of fragmentation, impoverishment, and manipulation by regional powers if they fail to negotiate a two-state peace agreement soon with Israel.
Fearful of Iran's growing role as backer of Palestinian armed groups, the Arab League recently reaffirmed its support for a Saudi peace initiative. All 22 Arab states pledged to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel once a peace accord was reached. Were such a transformation to take place as a result of the November summit, the United States might recover some of the goodwill the Bush administration has squandered in Iraq.
If the summit is to have any chance of succeeding, the parties will have to make substantive compromises. A border will have to be drawn close to the 1967 line of separation, with some large Israeli settlements on the West Bank absorbed into Israel and the Palestinians receiving equivalent territory in a one-for-one land swap. Jerusalem will have to be divided, with each of the monotheistic religions controlling its own holy places. Palestinian refugees from 1948 will have to be welcomed into the Palestinian state and supported with generous aid and compensation. Small numbers might be taken into Israel under the rubric of family reunification, but no accord will be possible if the Palestinian side insists on an unlimited right of return.
Negotiators cannot make such concessions unless conditions on the ground foster support among both populations. Olmert could ease roadblocks in the West Bank and release more Palestinian prisoners. Abbas will need to enforce security and prepare his people for an accommodation with Israel.
And the spoilers in the region, Hamas and Syria, will have to be brought inside the peace tent - if not by Israel and the United States, then by Abbas, the Saudis, and the other Arab states. Otherwise, it will be too easy for them to stage the sort of provocation that has subverted the chances for peace in the past.