Bush administration deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams writes in the Weekly Standard that there’s a choice in the Middle East between a path of "realism" and a path of "failure," and pursuing final-status talks is the latter path. But he does have some praise for the Palestinian Authority:
Judging by the standards set forth in President Bush’s still remarkable 2002 speech, the PA has made some genuine progress. Under U.S. tutelage, training of Palestinian security forces has begun largely under the radar, at a training center in Jordan. But it is working: Sixteen hundred police from the West Bank have gone through the course, and there are plans to double that number. The newly trained forces are not exactly crack troops, but they are a far cry from the divided and ineffective gangs created by Yasser Arafat. Their success was visible during the recent Gaza war, when they acted in parallel, and sometimes in concert, with Israeli forces to prevent Hamas violence and terrorism in the West Bank. Order was maintained.
Much of the credit goes to PA prime minister Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist whose integrity, candor, and effective administration of the PA have made him a favorite of the United States and all other donors. Fayyad, a former finance minister (who brought order from chaos in the PA’s finances and continues to fight PA corruption), has presided over continuing economic growth in the West Bank and maintains a working if unfriendly relationship with Israeli officials. Fayyad is well aware of the history of his sometime partner, sometime foe in Jerusalem, the government of Israel, and indeed of the history of the entire Zionist enterprise: Institutions were built over long decades to prepare for Israel’s independence despite the uncertainty of when it would arrive. The Zionists struggled to be ready, hoping thereby also to bring the day closer. That is Fayyad’s task for the Palestinian people, as he appears to see it.
He gets remarkably little help, from either Arab states or the West. The willingness of oil-rich Arab leaders to supply Palestinians with endless amounts of rhetoric and precious little cash is not new, though the high oil prices of recent years made it all the more obscene. But Fayyad has also had less help from the West than one might expect. The shift away from realistic efforts to build Palestinian institutions and toward international conferences like Annapolis put President Abbas in the limelight, not the pragmatic work of Fayyad and his ministers. So Abbas traveled from capital to capital, as he continues to do, safely removed from the difficult work of building the basis for an independent Palestine. If the West Bank had a factory with a thousand jobs for every such trip, for every photo op with a smiling foreign leader, and for every international conference, the Palestinians there would be thriving.
What are the chances that such meetings will produce a final status agreement in 2009? None. Despite the pressures for progress after Annapolis, little progress was made in 2008, and if anything conditions are worse now.
Instead, Abrams suggests a return "to the realistic assessments and policies that marked Bush’s first term":
In practice, this suggests an intense concentration on building Palestinian institutions in the West Bank.
There is much to build on, with security force improvements well under way, the economy in decent shape, and a reliable and trustworthy leader in Prime Minister Fayyad. Neither the United States nor Israel has done nearly as much as it can to promote progress on the ground, allowing Palestinians in the West Bank freer movement and helping create more jobs and a better standard of living. After the Gaza war, Israel appears prepared to do more, and should be asked to do so; Israel has a strategic interest in the success of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and of moderate forces in Palestinian society more generally. Arab states should be pressured intensely to provide the funds needed to meet the PA payroll and undertake sensible investment projects, for example in housing and agriculture. The United States and the Quartet should take some time away from endless meetings and speeches and resolutions calling for immediate negotiations over final status issues, and turn instead to making real life in the West Bank better and more secure. If there is ever to be a Palestinian state, it will be the product of such activities, not of formulaic pronouncements about the need for Palestinian statehood now.
And he even wonders whether statehood is "the best and most sensible goal for Palestinians":
When I served under Secretary of State George Shultz in the Reagan administration, we were expressly opposed to that outcome and favored some links to Egypt and Jordan. On security and economic grounds, such links are no less reasonable now; indeed, given Hamas control of Gaza and the Iranian threat to moderate Arab states as well as to Israel, they may be even more compelling. As we’ve seen, President Bush in 2002 stated that the Palestinians should "reach agreement with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence."
Now, even the mention of Egyptian and Jordanian involvement will evoke loud protests, not least in Amman and Ramallah, and perhaps U.S. policymakers should think but not speak about such an outcome. There are many and varied possible relationships between a Palestinian entity in the West Bank and the Hashemite monarchy, and if none can be embraced today, none should be discarded either. One Arab statesman told me when I asked him about a Jordanian role that there "must absolutely be an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank–if only for 15 minutes," and then they could decide on some form of federation or at least a Jordanian security role for the area. If the greatest Israeli, Jordanian, and Egyptian fears are of terrorism, disorder, and Iranian inroads in a Palestinian West Bank state, a Jordanian role is a practical means of addressing those fears.