(The following is taken from Ambassador Ross's article in the November/December 2007 issue of The National Interest, "Middle East Muddle")
This meeting, which President Bush announced with some fanfare, will not take care of itself. Secretary Rice must negotiate clear understandings in advance: The details of the agenda must be worked out and not left to chance; the terms of reference must be understood the same way by all the attendees; the steps that will follow the meeting must be agreed on beforehand. None of this will be accomplished in a meeting or two- Secretary Rice will have to shuttle and grind this out with the participants. Indeed, the more she seeks to accomplish on permanent status issues like Jerusalem, refugees and borders-and she apparently would like a text outlining the principles of agreement on these core existential issues to be adopted or endorsed by the meeting participants1-the more she will need to invest in prolonged and difficult negotiations.
At this point, the more ambitious objectives the secretary seeks may be beyond reach. If so, she must pursue more modest ones and achieve them. Perhaps Condoleeza Rice could focus on a declaration of principles on Israeli and Palestinian state-to-state relations, a process for further Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank tied to security responsibilities and milestones on the Palestinian side and the creation of working groups to fashion an approach to implementation. Either way-whether going for more ambitious objectives or more attainable ones-the secretary must throw herself into difficult and time-consuming negotiations with all those who will attend the meeting. The Saudis may be an especially demanding case. They have announced that if they are to attend the conference, Syria and Lebanon must be invited and all the permanent status issues be seriously discussed. Secretary Rice will have to work out the details of the meeting in a way that persuades them to attend.
In 1991, then-Secretary of State James Baker had to break the taboo on direct negotiations between Israel and her neighbors (other than Egypt). To produce that breakthrough was no small accomplishment, and it required Secretary Baker to intensively negotiate the pre-Madrid conference terms with all the participants. He used constant discussions with the Europeans, Soviets, Egyptians and Saudis, along with his own meetings with Syrian President Asad, to exert leverage on Syria and gain its agreement to the Madrid terms. A great deal of statecraft was involved. Secretary Rice will have a different challenge, but will find that she too must engage in intensive statecraft if the upcoming November international meeting is to contribute to the president's stated objective for it. …
Since the world won't stand still until after our presidential election, we don't have the luxury of waiting for the next administration to tackle the challenges of the Middle East. It is essential to urge the Bush Administration to become clearer in defining its objectives and identifying the means it can and must employ to increase the probability of achieving them. With the serious application of statecraft and the essential understanding of what it will take to marry our objectives and our means, we can put ourselves on more hopeful footing-even in a region that appears hopeless.
Ambassador Dennis Ross is The Washington Institute's counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow. For more than twelve years, Ambassador Ross played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process and dealing directly with the parties in negotiations.
1 Steven Erlanger, "Events Prod U.S. to Make New Push for Mideast Deal", The New York Times, August 17, 2007.