A central message from President George W. Bush’s three-day flurry of Mideast diplomacy was his commitment to remain "actively engaged" in the peace process. He faced immediate concerns about the sincerity of his vows. Arab states warned that a failure to follow (AP) through could spark "a violent backlash of dashed hopes." Some top Mideast analysts believe progress may prove difficult. In a call with reporters on November 28, CFR President Richard N. Haass said he saw little of substance from Bush’s foray into Arab-Israeli peace, and, most notably, believes Bush did little to strengthen the hand of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "It’s not simply enough to have leadership that wants peace. You have to have leadership that’s able to make peace," Haass said. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that a lack of specifics from Bush indicates a reluctance to get involved in clearing the obstacles to a peace agreement.
Bush promised at the peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, that he would use his remaining year as president to help achieve the “ambitious goal” of bringing peace to the region. He offered words of optimism and encouragement to Arab, Israeli, and other foreign dignitaries present, and read from a joint understanding agreed to by the two sides pledging to work toward a permanent peace by the end of 2008.
Bush recommitted himself to a Palestinian state but said its nature was just as important as its creation. He said Israel would have to demonstrate a willingness to end unauthorized settlements and make difficult choices, and that the Arab world needed to show it believes “that Israel and its people have a permanent home in the Middle East.”
The president also laid out the schedule for talks following the conference, which Palestinian-Israeli disagreements had confined to a ceremonial event. He said a steering committee of Israelis and Palestinians would begin meeting on December 12, and that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would hold biweekly meetings to assess progress ( ChiTrib). He also said "the United States will monitor and judge the fulfillment of the commitment of both sides of the road map.”
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders vowed to negotiate a peace treaty by the end of 2008 (NYT). That pledge, editorialized the Washington Post, comfortably cleared the low bar of expectations set for the one-day summit. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman says moderate politicians are finally showing an eagerness to forge lasting peace, as evidenced by the Annapolis meeting. The administration was also buoyed by the fact that all invitees decided to attend, even Saudi Arabia, despite a public appeal (Al Bawaba) by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to reject the conference.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, tells TIME his country holds out hope for progress, but his attendance should not be misinterpreted as a sign of an impending deal. “It is a very simple equation. Either Israel wants peace or territory. It can't have both.”
Political questions, too, hovered over the talks. The upcoming 2008 presidential election may limit the Bush administration’s options, as the quick criticism (TPMCafe) of the Annapolis conference by GOP candidates shows. On the Palestinian side, Abbas’ government, shorn of the Gaza Strip by the radical Hamas movement last summer, can hardly be described as solid. Abbas issued a statement last Monday which stopped just short of calling for an uprising against Hamas (al-Jazeera), a group whose suicide bombers played a large role in ruining the last serious peace initiative, the Oslo process of the 1990s. In Israel, meanwhile, Olmert faces intense pressure not to make further concessions from his domestic coalition partners. His preconference decision to release some Palestinians, and to give twenty-five armored cars to Abbas’ security forces, were derided (Ynet) by one foe as “lubricating the wheels of terror.”