The consequences are now obvious. The US’ approach to ending the three-year, one-sided war between Israel and the Palestinians is a failure teetering on the brink of disaster. After ignoring the issue for 28 months, the US in April finally affirmed its support for the Middle East roadmap. Even then, the document, drafted under the supervision of the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, had the hallmarks of earlier failed attempts to deliver peace and prosperity to the Palestinian people: vague objectives, wishful thinking and a hopelessly unrealistic set of deadlines.

The roadmap’s first phase, aimed at ending violence in the West Bank and Gaza, was due to have been completed by the end of May. Permanent status negotiations were planned to begin at the start of 2004. The document has lost most of its credibility, not least because the Israeli government – without censure from Washington – insisted on the inclusion of more than a dozen contentious additions. The Palestinians had previously declared unconditional assent to the roadmap and the Israelis were supposed to have done the same.

General Accord

While the roadmap fades, a new document is coming into focus. The Geneva Accord, prepared in secret with Swiss support by former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Beilin and his Palestinian counterpart Yasser Abed Rabbo, is due to be signed on 1 December. It is a longer document than the roadmap, but it has the attraction of being much clearer.

The accord calls for a two-state solution, as the roadmap does, but states that the border between Israel and Palestine should be based on the 4 June 1967 ceasefire line, which the roadmap does not. There is a clear statement about Jerusalem which falls short of the Palestinian demand for what was seized in 1967. However, both Israel and Palestine would have their capitals in the city. The accord calls for a complete solution to the disgrace of millions of Palestinians living as refugees. This also fails to meet settled Palestinian goals but it is better than the roadmap, which says nothing meaningful about what is probably the biggest issue of all.

The accord’s main problem is that it has been negotiated in secret and, consequently, has no official support. Sadly, therefore, it has even less credibility than the roadmap.

If this is all we have to look forward to, the prospects for 2004 are grim, particularly for the Palestinians. About 55 per cent of the Palestinian labour force are jobless. About 60 per cent have income of less than $2 a day. A donor conference in mid-December is to seek $1,200 million for the Palestinian Authority (PA), but there are doubts whether all the money will be forthcoming.

New border

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is using military force and economic strangulation to break the will of the Palestinian people, perhaps in preparation for the unilateral imposition of a new border that follows the line of the illicit security fence his government has built. This approach probably has majority support among Israelis. No objective observer believes such a strategy will produce anything other than more fury and violence. War-weariness and economic worries are beginning to take a toll on Sharon’s popularity. But the Israeli people are not yet ready to push their leaders into serious peace negotiations.

So it is time for people of goodwill, including James Baker, to call for a fresh start based on the Madrid formula. This would initially entail a multilateral conference, with UN, US, EU and Russian support, involving representatives of Israel, the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. The aim should be simple: delivering the two-state solution envisaged by President Bush. No false deadline should be set, but the conference should be kept in permanent session with active US involvement to keep the process moving forward.

An election year is a bad moment for an American president to tackle the tragedy of Palestine. But far too much time, and hope, has already been lost in the past three years. The US wants Iraq to be a model Middle East democracy. But isn’t Palestine an equally proper cause for urgent US attention?