By Greg Sheridan, The Sunday Telegraph
THIS past week in Israel, where I have been staying for a couple of weeks, there began what should be a historic process: negotiation of a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
This is the outcome of the recent Annapolis conference in the US.
Three leaders – US President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas – have committed to finding a final settlement within a year.
They have not committed to full implementation of this final settlement in that time, merely to the conclusion of an agreement on what the terms of the final settlement will be.
This covers areas such as the amount of territory an independent Palestinian state will get; the so-called right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants (which Israel interprets as a right of return to a new Palestinian state and the Palestinians interpret as a right of return to Israel itself), and the arrangements that will cover Jerusalem.
The obstacles to any settlement are enormous. For a start, the Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction over one-third of its population, which lives in the Gaza Strip under the control of the Islamist terrorist organisation Hamas – an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But even in the West Bank, the real power of the Palestinian Authority is very limited. Several West Bank cities are ruled by warlords, not the Authority.
Indeed, Palestinian leaders cannot travel safely in all their own cities and are not ready to take over security in most of their cities from Israeli security forces.
In truth, the Palestinian Authority does not have functioning state institutions.
Outside donors, including Australia, are set to pump an enormous amount of money into the West Bank to try to improve the quality of life there.
This is designed, in part, to strengthen Mahmood Abbas and to show the Palestinians that life on the moderate path, in the West Bank, is much better than life under the extremist path, as in Gaza under Hamas.
The Palestinian Authority, however, shows no signs of re-establishing control of the Gaza Strip, and it is inconceivable that Israel would allow the creation of a Palestinian state that did not control both the West Bank and Gaza.
Many people around the world tell Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders. Two years ago, Israel did pull out of Gaza – and the result was that Hamas took over.
Every day now, Hamas terrorists fire rockets – aimed at civilians – from Gaza into Israel.
Eventually, one of these rockets will kill a large number of Israeli civilians and there will be a huge Israeli military response inside Gaza.
Whatever Mahmood Abbas thinks of this, or Hamas (some of whom have pledged to kill him), he would be forced to make an ultra-nationalist response – and that, in itself, could kill the peace process.
Further, the Annapolis process requires the fulfillment of the conditions of the so-called Road Map, the very first of which is that the Palestinians stamp out terrorism and stop attacks on Israeli civilians.
There is no sign the Palestinian Authority can do this, or even that it really wants to do this. Its educational materials are full of hatred against Israel and incitement to terrorism.
And that is the fundamental problem. Neither the Palestinian leadership, nor most of the surrounding Arab states, has really come to grips with Israel’s right to exist at peace behind secure borders.
Until that happens, no agreement is likely to work on the ground.
So, what should have been an epic week may prove only to have been just another footnote of failure in the long saga of failure in the Middle East.