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CFR Fellows Respond to Annapolis Conference

Authors: Steven A. Cook, Douglas Dillon Fellow, Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies, Mohamad Bazzi, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, and Steven Simon, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
November 28, 2007

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Steven Cook: Diplomatic Pageantry Bolsters Abbas

Charles Kupchan: Adversities Facing Players Provide a Glimmer of Hope

Mohamad Bazzi: Missed Opportunity to Renew Syrian-Israeli Dialogue

Steven Simon: Right Countries Present, But Pessimism Appropriate

Steven Cook: Diplomatic Pageantry Bolsters Abbas

The meetings at Annapolis this week were significant for the very fact that the United States was able to broker formal negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis after seven long years of violence and conflict. The presence of forty six other countries signals both the importance with which the international community regards this effort and, critically, bolsters Mahmoud Abbas who has very little political support in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, one of the objectives of the conference was to demonstrate to the Palestinian public the benefits of Abbas' path of negotiation as opposed to Hamas' method of confrontation in the hope of draining support away from the extremists. There were also broader strategic issues at play beyond the intrinsic importance of Palestinian-Israeli peace. Convening the meeting was part of an effort to cement a "virtual" coalition of Arab countries and Israel to contain the influence of Iran. The Palestinian problem is, after all, a potent issue through which Tehran has sought to affect politics in the Arab world.

Despite the diplomatic pageantry, however, the meetings are unlikely to produce much. Palestinian demands regarding the "right of return" are a non-starter for Israelis and Israel's supporters around the world. In addition, conditions on the ground are not favorable to Israeli territorial concessions. As long as Qassem rockets fired from Gaza -- from which Israel withdrew in 2005 -- fall on the Israeli town of Sderot, there is little chance any Israeli leader could contemplate withdrawing from the West Bank, which is closer to Israel's population centers.

Charles Kupchan: Adversities Facing Players Provide a Glimmer of Hope

The Annapolis Conference was the diplomatic equivalent of a "Hail Mary" -- a last-ditch football play in which the quarterback throws the ball as far down field as he can hoping that someone on his team catches it in the end zone. The good news is that the Bush Administration has finally called a play. The bad news is that Palestinians and Israelis opposed to a deal are at least as likely to prevail as those seeking compromise and peace.

Paradoxically, the adversities facing all the key players provide a glimmer of hope. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration desperately needs a win in the Middle East. Europeans, having deepened their engagement in Lebanon, Syria, and the peace process, are equally keen for progress. The region's conservative Sunni regimes, fearing Iran and a Shiite resurgence, see a peace deal as crucial to dampening extremism and sectarian violence. The Palestinian Authority has for now lost Gaza to Hamas and realizes that a deal offers the best hope of averting further descent into division and chaos. A compromise similarly offers a weak Israeli government hope of appealing to centrist voters who appreciate that a territorial settlement offers the best hope for their country's security in the long term.

Political weakness is rarely the stuff of compromise and accommodation; hard-line opponents are always ready to exploit concessions for tactical gains. If Annapolis is to be more than a last-gasp and futile gambit, Washington will have to follow up with determined and decisive engagement. The forces of accommodation in the Middle East are simply too weak to prevail on their own.

Mohamad Bazzi: Missed Opportunity to Renew Syrian-Israeli Dialogue

The Annapolis summit achieved one significant, if somewhat symbolic, goal for the Bush Administration: It brought Israeli leaders together with high-level officials from more than a dozen Arab countries for the first time since the 1990s. But the meeting was also a missed opportunity, because the Administration did not use it as a springboard to launch a new round of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

The summit was a crucial opening to start wooing Syria away from its increasing reliance on Iran. The Israeli-Syrian peace track can move faster than Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, because Syrian president Bashar Assad can actually deliver on a peace deal unlike the weak Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of the Gaza Strip to the militant group Hamas in June.

Assad has made clear that he wants to restart talks to recover the Golan Heights. Some Israeli leaders are also keen to negotiate with Syria, and secret meetings between the two sides were held in Switzerland under former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. But the Bush Administration has discouraged such dialogue because it does not trust the Syrian regime and wants to keep it isolated.

Syria's leaders have consistently said that full peace is possible, but only if they recover all of the Golan. In January 2000, President Bill Clinton led marathon talks between Assad's father, Hafez, and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. Those discussions collapsed over a sliver of land -- about 100 yards wide -- that would have given Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, a major source of water for Israel. To reach a final settlement, the United States must push Israel and Syria back to negotiations using the 2000 talks as a starting point.

The United States has much to gain strategically from renewed Syrian-Israeli dialogue. Syria could be pressed to play a more constructive role in the region -- instead of being a spoiler or, worse, turning into a full-fledged rogue state. Even without a regional settlement, Israel has much to gain from a deal over the Golan. It would mean not only a peace treaty with Syria, but an end of Syrian aid to what is now Israel's most dangerous enemy: Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that did surprisingly well in its war with a far superior Israeli army in the summer of 2006. Israel has exchanged occupied land for peace and security before. After the 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Egypt, Israeli forces withdrew fully from the Sinai peninsula and Israel was able to neutralize its most dangerous military rival at the time. In the end, it was a good bargain for Israel -- and for the United States, which now counts Egypt among its most important strategic allies in the Arab world.

Steven Simon: Right Countries Present, But Pessimism Appropriate

The Annapolis meeting can't have been a bad thing. A renewed process will prove useful to U.S. efforts to resuscitate its reputation overseas and might help win more international backing for Washington's foreign policy objectives. For Israelis and Palestinians, it's an opportunity to escape tyranny of occupation.

The right countries were present. The Saudis were there to confer respectability on the proceedings and, more specifically, on Mahmoud Abbas. They also got the chance to strut as the new leader of the Arab world. The Syrians were there to enjoy a furlough from solitary confinement and remind Washington that they had a stake in a peace process too. For Israelis who've chafed at Washington's disapproval of talks between Jerusalem and Damascus -- and who believe that dealing with an autocrat who can deliver is better than dealing with a hamstrung liberal who controls just half his country (with the help of the Israeli army) -- Syria's participation was seen as a real plus. Moreover, both Olmert and Abbas, though weak, are committed to reaching an agreement.

Pessimism is nevertheless appropriate. Terrorism -- a bomb in a café or a bus, or a lucky hit with a crude missile -- could bring the process to a halt at any point. Hostilities could reemerge on the Lebanese front. Fighting between Hamas and Fatah could reignite, leading to events that delegitimize Abbas. Olmert might prove to have misjudged his room for political maneuver as the process edges toward existential issues, like refugee return. A lame duck administration in Washington might be distracted by reversals in Iraq or find itself unprepared to take steps that might expose a Republican candidate to political risk. And then there are the core issues themselves, which involve questions of identity and history that would be difficult for the parties to confront under much more favorable circumstances.

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