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Let's make a deal

Middle East | It's U.S. military action in Iraq that holds the main stage, but elsewhere in the region dealmaking is breaking out

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

Arab-Israeli conflict: changing guard

After decades of painfully slow negotiations and little progress, many analysts doubt that the latest efforts to reach an agreement by the end of this year will produce substance. Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator under Democratic and Republican administrations, says he has lowered his expectations: "Talk about Arab-Israeli peace is an illusion. We've never had it, we don't have it now, and we're unlikely to have it in any sort of time horizon I can envision."

So why should the United States continue negotiations jump-started in Annapolis almost one year ago?

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What's at stake? While this conflict isn't the top U.S. foreign policy priority, it does influence perceptions in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world. "I think a lot of it is unfair in terms of how we're tarred with the responsibility, but it is the perception out there. Therefore to the degree that we are seen to be trying to affect resolution in this problem, we can get some credit, and our credibility can be enhanced," Miller said.

Miller, the author of the new book, The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, says the Arab-Israeli conflict resonates in a dysfunctional and divided Arab and Muslim world: "It combines an emotional, ideological, and national interest element which makes it an extremely important one for the Arabs and the Muslims. And it may well be the last remaining source of unity in an ideological sense that is left in the Arab world other than opposing America."

Key players: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continues to push for progress, and as this administration prepares to pass the baton, new faces will enter the arena if negotiations continue.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert steps down this month, and his likely successor, minister of foreign affairs Tzipi Livni, has been at the forefront of negotiations.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is only as strong as militants allow him to be, and with Gaza in turmoil, he lacks full control in Palestinian areas. Abbas has threatened to resign if real progress isn't made in the coming months.

What to expect: A deal by the end of this year looks increasingly unlikely. Miller says there's a chance both sides could produce a document that stretches some of the issues a bit further--particularly the issue of borders.

The Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank that focuses on security, predicts a Palestinian change in tactics in the wake of a passing deadline. Its researchers have observed an increased call for a one-state solution by senior West Bank officials. Many Palestinians have viewed the Annapolis negotiations and the impending deadline as the last chance for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to prove it can make progress and have threatened to remove the PA if it fails.

Syria-Israel: Peace at last?

Want to travel to Syria? You'd better not have traveled to Israel. Syria's visa application asks, "Have you ever visited occupied Palestine?" If you check "yes," it's a deal-breaker: no entry. Syria has been officially at war with Israel since 1948, and the current flicker of negotiations is one of the most striking developments in the region. If border issues and security arrangements can be reached, this minor conflict on the regional scale could be a major tipping point.

What's at stake? The Golan Heights is a strategic plateau of about 500 square miles encompassing a small part of the Jordan River Valley and ascending to Mount Hermon. Syria controlled it militarily-and regularly used it to fire on Israeli kibbutzim-until Israel seized it in 1967. Now Syria has submitted to Israel a list outlining six points about a possible withdrawal from the Golan Heights. These form the groundwork for negotiation, which could include ending Syrian support for terrorist groups, namely Hamas and Hezbollah. A Syria on good terms with Israel and the United States could dramatically alter the terrorist-support network in the Middle East and further isolate Iran's Islamic regime.

Key players: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pressed for direct talks, despite a reputation as a weak leader dependent on military advisers. Turkey and Qatar have mediated indirect talks, and this month French president Nikolas Sarkozy joined in a four-way summit, marking the first time a Western leader has visited Damascus since 2005.

What to expect: Assad hinges success on who becomes the next U.S. president and who succeeds Israel's Olmert. But he is ready to talk and is likely to do so at some point next year. A new U.S. administration has an opportunity to cultivate a better relationship with Syria, which has in the past turned over intelligence on al-Qaeda and faces serious economic hardship since.

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