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Conflict is Not Ripe for Resolution Yet

By Richard Haass

''Ripeness is all,'' concludes Edgar in King Lear. I will leave it to Shakespeare scholars to decipher what he had in mind. But for diplomats and historians, understanding the concept of ripeness is central to their jobs: It refers to how ready a negotiation or conflict is to be resolved.

This may sound academic, but it is anything but. The United States and the three other members of the Quartet -- the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- are planning to convene many of the parties to the Israeli-Arab conflict at a meeting near Washington in November.

The problem is that the conflict is not even close to being ripe for resolution. Ignoring this reality will lead to failure, if not catastrophe.

Ripeness has several elements. There must be: a formula for the parties involved to adopt, a diplomatic process to get them to that point and protagonists who are able and willing to make a deal.

It is not clear that any of these conditions exist in today's Middle East. Much has been said or written about what ''final status'' or peace between Israel and the Palestinians would look like, but important differences remain regarding borders, the status of Jerusalem and its holy places, the rights of refugees, the future of Israeli settlements and security arrangements.

Most critical, though, is the condition of local leadership.

• Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may want to sign a peace accord with Israel, but he is in no position to do so. He has lost all authority in Gaza and has a tenuous hold over the West Bank. If Palestine were a state, it would be judged to have failed.

• Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in a stronger but still uncertain position. His coalition government survives mainly because many members of Israel's parliament know that they would lose their seats in an early election. It is an open question whether the most that Olmert would likely be able and willing to offer would meet the least that Abbas would be able to accept.

So what, then, should be done?

• First, keep expectations modest. Calls for an agreement on the most controversial elements of a final peace settlement are unrealistic. Simply agreeing to an agenda for follow-up meetings would be an accomplishment.

• Second, this meeting must be the start of a serious process, not a one-time event. Rigid timetables should be eschewed, but no one should doubt the determination of the Quartet members to see this process succeed as quickly as possible.

• Third, Palestinians must come to associate diplomacy with improvement in their living conditions. This requires improved security and inflows of aid and investment.

• Fourth, provide a path for those who do not attend this meeting to join the process at a later date. The most critical barrier for Hamas and others should be a clear commitment to forgo armed violence in the pursuit of political ends.

• Fifth, the Palestinian leadership cannot be expected to take risks for peace without political protection. Arab governments -- led by Egypt and Jordan, but including Saudi Arabia and other members of the Arab League -- must publicly declare their willingness to support a peace that is based on coexistence with Israel.

For some, this approach will seem overly modest. But this is not yet the time for great ambition.

The context for Middle East peace has deteriorated sharply since the Clinton administration last convened the parties seven years ago.

Today's Israeli and Palestinian leaders are far weaker than their predecessors; Hamas controls Gaza; Iran is more influential; additional settlements and a fence have been built; and the United States has lost standing throughout the region.

Neglect in the Middle East is rarely benign. But new efforts must not cause more harm than good. Avoiding failure is sometimes a better objective than achieving great success. Today's diplomats could do worse than recall the warning of the French statesman Talleyrand: "Surtout, messieurs, point de zele.'' Above all, not too much zeal.

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Project Syndicate

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