If the Bush administration intended to lower expectations ahead of the Middle East peace conference it is hosting in Annapolis on November 27, the effort has been a resounding success. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent weeks shuttling back and forth to the region, and at times sounded decidedly pessimistic about prospects for progress. Then, on November 20, the administration announced it had invited over forty nations to attend.
In spite of an upbeat assessment (video) from David Welch, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, the ground looks anything but fertile. Prodded by Rice, the primary diplomatic actors—Israel and the Palestinian Authority—spent weeks in a fruitless effort (Ynet) to agree to a joint declaration on a “two-state solution” that Washington hoped would form the foundation of the conference. In the latest twist, rhetorical outrage swept the Arab world when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted the Palestinian side accept the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, as opposed to a multicultural one, as a precondition to any grand bargain (BBC).
On a political level, things are hardly better. A presidential election year in the United States limits the Bush administration’s options as candidates on both sides vie to be seen as a friend of Israel. Among Palestinians, meanwhile, the week preceding the conference brought new fraternal violence in Gaza, the destitute Palestinian appendage seized from President Mahmoud Abbas’ government by the Hamas movement last summer. Abbas issued a statement this week 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 for pre-conference concessions. He's agreed to release some Palestinians held by Israel, to give 25 armored cars to Abbas’ security forces—“lubricating the wheels of terror” as one opposition figure put it (Ynet). And, not incidentally, an Israeli investigating panel will decide Monday whether to indict the prime minister for alleged financial wrongdoing during his time as Ariel Sharon’s finance minister (Haaretz).
“The problem is that the conflict is not even close to being ripe for resolution,” CFR President Richard N. Haass wrote recently in the Korea Times. “Ignoring this reality will lead to failure, if not catastrophe.” Haass and many others see insufficient political capital available to the main players, including President Bush. He also cites the absence of a clear process for moving through the many points of disagreement. “It is vital that new efforts do not cause more harm than good. Avoiding failure is sometimes a better objective than achieving great success. This is one such occasion.”
Expectations remain so low, in fact, that more partisan analysts already are assigning blame for the failure of the conference. Jeff Robbins, a former Clinton administration diplomat, writes in the Wall Street Journal: “However significant the role of the U.S. is in nurturing political settlements of international disputes, it simply cannot prevent the Palestinian leadership and its Arab backers from making extraordinarily poor choices or, in President Clinton’s parlance, ‘tragic mistakes.’” Amoz Oz, one of the Israeli left's foremost proponents of the two-state solution, says the conference has little hope of success (Ynet) because “to a large extent, both sides have been taken captive by their respective extremists, and these radicals are not allowing the negotiators to offer any meaningful concessions.” Abdullah Iskandar of Dar Al Hayat, an Arab newspaper published in London, says the Israeli-Palestinian talks which preceded the conference shows no willingness on the part of Israelis to make serious compromises on the most difficult issues.
The issues involved by now will be familiar to anyone who follows geopolitics in a serious way. Palestinians, backed by the Arab League, want Israel to return the lands it captured in the 1967 war, which would entail the evacuation of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, an agreement settling the disputed status of Jerusalem, as well as a separate deal on Syria’s claim to the Golan Heights. [The Arab League made it clear Thursday that Syria's claim, too, must be on the table (Al-Arabiya)].
Israel seeks enforceable security guarantees, the exception of three large settlement blocks from any West Bank evacuation, diplomatic recognition from across the Arab World, and a pledge by Arab states to prevent hardline dissenters from any agreement from attempting to renegotiate it through terrorism. Other issues—the Palestinian demand that refugees be allowed to return to property they held before the 1967 or 1948 wars, the status of Palestinians held by Israel and Israeli soldiers held by Palestinian militant groups, altering the route of the so-called “Security Fence” that seals much of the West Bank from Israel proper—all remain to be settled.
On the issue of Jerusalem alone, repeated efforts to agree on a formula to divide the city and allow the Palestinians to form a national capital in some part of it have proven impossible. Just this week, the mayor of Jerusalem declared his intention to make it as difficult as possible to ever divide the city again (JPost). “While many are busy talking about Jerusalem, we act,” Mayor Uri Lupolianski said, describing a new plan to harden the city’s claim on outlying regions. “Our goal is to set facts.” For Olmert, weakened politically by the war against Hezbollah last summer, such a concession could spell political disaster. As Mideast analyst David Makovsky put it in this CFR.org interview, “the greater specificity he gets into about Jerusalem, the more political hot water he will find himself with his coalition partners.”
Through all this, supporters of the summit argue that inaction is not an option. Rice countered those who argue that Abbas and Olmert [and even Bush] lack the political clout needed to move forward, or that the effort is motivated by "legacy" considerations. "There are a lot easier things to do to get a photo op than try to get Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate seriously for the first time in seven years." Indeed, British analyst Bronwen Maddox suggests the time may be right precisely because all sides feel a sense of "threat and urgency." (Times of London). Shmuel Rosner, chief Haaretz correspondent in the U.S., says for all the failure and delay associated with the “Road Map” approach of the past several years, “The fact that both sides failed to implement it is not a reason to skip to a new document, but rather proof that they have to try again.”