Annapolis: A Failure Foretold

By Yossi Alpher

Finally there is a fixed venue for the American-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian conference: Annapolis, Maryland. There is an approximate date: sometime in the second half of November. The Syrians have been invited, thereby ostensibly dealing with a major criticism of the conference concept. In Israel and Palestine, the two sides’ negotiating teams are set to meet to begin drafting an agreed document to be endorsed at the conference, while President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Ehud Olmert get together every fortnight in an atmosphere of conviviality and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides visit the region to encourage preparations.

Why, then, do I remain skeptical–nay, fearful–regarding the outcome? After all, I have supported a negotiated two-state solution for the past 20 years.

Nothing about this conference looks right; everything points to a failure foretold. The closer we get to the conference, the worse the outcome looks. The only real issues that remain to be resolved are, first, whether the conference will be held at all and second, regardless of whether or not it eventually takes place, how bad the damage it generates will be.

There are so many negatives to this project that it’s hard to know where to start. All the participants are too weak to qualify for a serious conflict-resolution effort. The Palestinian leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas lacks the authority to enforce its writ. It has lost the Gaza Strip and only manages to control the West Bank thanks to Israeli military backing. It is in no position to make constructive concessions on the major issues of territory, refugees and Jerusalem, let alone deliver on them in terms of public support. It is not significantly reforming its corrupt and inept institutions–the definitive step that must precede progress toward peace.

Abbas’ partner, PM Ehud Olmert, has in the course of some 21 months in power demonstrated little if any strategic understanding of the region and its dynamics. While he perceives the negative role played by the settlements, he is incapable of dismantling them. If the Winograd commission doesn’t call for his resignation, significant segments of his governing coalition and his own party could abandon him the moment he offers the necessary concessions on borders and Jerusalem; even his partner on the political left, Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor), who is very much a strategic thinker, is openly skeptical regarding the Annapolis effort.

To the weak and ineffective Israeli and Palestinian leaders add a third, US President George W. Bush, whose failure in Iraq is complemented by seven years of refusal to commit his administration wholeheartedly to an Israeli-Palestinian solution. That Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not shuttling back and forth in the region for weeks on end from now until meeting time in Annapolis says everything: weak president, wrong objective–recruiting moderate Sunni Arab backing in Iraq and regarding Iran rather than making peace between Israel and Palestine–and half-hearted effort.

Speaking of the Sunni Arab world, it is almost nowhere to be seen as this conference takes shape. It has not followed through forcefully on its impressive Arab peace initiative–not that Olmert, either, knows what to do with it. It is hedging its bets on Hamas. It is deeply disappointed with the Bush administration’s catastrophic handling of Iraq–though it did nothing to prevent that fiasco. Worst of all it is in strategic disarray, lacking leadership and incapable of stopping the internal disintegration of, at last count, five of the 22 members of the Arab League (Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and of course Palestine).

Small wonder the date for the Annapolis meeting is repeatedly postponed. The Saudis won’t commit to coming while the Syrians, understandably, refuse to play the role of spear-carrier and insist their own conflict with Israel be dealt with in Annapolis as well. Meanwhile the conference agenda cannot be set because Israel and the Palestinians have radically different concepts of the document to be drafted.

Some would argue that it is nevertheless better for Washington to try and fail with this conference than not to try at all, and that the “political horizon” represented by the effort is vital to Abbas’ attempts to promulgate reform. Yet the real danger here is precisely that the unwinding of this conference–its cancellation, failure to agree or endorsement of a weak statement that in any case cannot be acted upon by Abbas, Olmert and Bush–will accelerate the negative dynamics in the region. It will hasten the downfall of the Palestinian and Israeli leaders, deter their successors from trying again, strengthen Hamas and its backers Syria and Iran, and further weaken Washington’s (and potentially Jerusalem’s) Arab allies in the looming confrontations with Tehran and the radical elements maneuvering to succeed the US in Iraq.

Better to postpone Annapolis and concentrate first on building Palestinian security and governmental institutions and rebuilding confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s what the Quartet appointed Tony Blair to do. Annapolis is dangerous because it is liable to preempt and prejudice that effort.- Published 8/10/2007 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

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