The air of pessimism preceding the international peace conference at Annapolis was so heavy and the predictions of failure so widespread, it's a wonder the meeting occurred at all. The Israelis and Palestinians were unable to prepare a joint statement for the talks until the last minute, while the Americans were so chastened by delays and outside ridicule that the White House began to insist that the conclave should not be called a "summit," indeed not even a "conference," but merely a "meeting."
The impediments to success--which will be defined not by what happened at Annapolis but by negotiations scheduled to begin soon after--are multiple and daunting. Chief among them is that the three key leaders--Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US President George W. Bush--have so far been either unable or unwilling to take the courageous steps needed to ensure a lasting agreement. Olmert, still enduring low approval ratings after the Lebanon war fiasco of 2006, is under criminal investigation arising from corruption scandals and is hamstrung by far-right members of his Cabinet determined to foil even minuscule steps toward peace. Abbas not only lost control of Gaza in June after the mini-coup by Hamas; his dysfunctional Fatah government controls little outside Ramallah in the West Bank. And lame-duck Bush, given the Iraq occupation and the clear hypocrisy of his call for democracy in the Middle East--quickly downplayed after the 2006 Palestinian elections brought Hamas to power--is not only unpopular at home but more despised in the Middle East than any leader in US history. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who organized the Annapolis meeting and whose reputation is riding on the results, began to rival Bush in disrepute after her notorious refusal to call for a cease-fire in the Lebanon war.
So why take such a gamble now, given its seeming certainty of failure? From the perspective of the Bush Administration as well as many of the attendees, the purpose is not only to address the Israel-Palestine conflict but to use diplomacy to isolate Iran and radical Sunni Islamists. The Administration encouraged Arab League attendance at Annapolis as a way to forge a regional alliance against the Persian Peril (and also to recoup some of the political capital lost through the Iraq disaster). The White House and Israel also hope that heightened aid to the West Bank PA, releases of Fatah prisoners and progress in talks stemming from Annapolis can be used to turn Palestinians against Hamas. This has been combined with a near-blockade of Gaza--the collective punishment of 1.4 million Palestinians for democratically electing leaders not to Washington's liking, which has led to staggering levels of poverty and hunger and a growing public health crisis. Aside from these violations of human rights, the Administration seems to have given little thought to the fact that an agreement with one Palestinian faction will invite sabotage from the excluded. One does not have to accept Hamas's ideology, or that of the clerical regime in Tehran, to recognize that engagement and negotiation are more productive than isolation.
As if all of these factors were not enough to doom the Annapolis démarche, the odd structure of the follow-up talks doesn't inspire confidence. The parties are committed to negotiating the most difficult aspects of the conflict, "including all core issues without exception," while at the same time resurrecting the first stage of the stillborn 2003 "road map." Given the makeup of the Israeli government, it's no more likely to carry out those obligations (including a freeze in settlement growth and removal of unauthorized outposts) now than it was four years ago. And the Bush Administration has already made it clear that it has no intention of being an honest broker. The Jewish and Christian Zionist lobby battalions, along with their Congressional cheering section, have been besieging the White House to make sure it doesn't challenge the Israeli position.
Which is a pity, since, despite the myriad obstacles, the path to a two-state solution has never been clearer. As spelled out in documents like the Arab League peace initiative and the 2003 Geneva Accord, Israel would have to pay the difficult price of removing several hundred thousand settlers from the West Bank and the Golan and giving up control of East Jerusalem, but in exchange it would get full diplomatic recognition from not only the new state of Palestine but all the Arab League nations, as well as an end to Syrian motives to foment Hezbollah militancy on Israel's northern border. The Palestinians would have to pay the difficult price of giving up the right of all refugees to return to Israel, but they would get independent statehood and an end to occupation--a solution Hamas would be compelled to accept.
At least one good thing can be said about the Annapolis meeting: it stipulates continuing, frequent high-level talks between the parties. That's certainly an improvement on the diplomatic desert of the past seven years. If the Bush Administration were a true friend to Israel, it would buck the domestic lobbies and pressure Tel Aviv to do what is in US, Israeli and Palestinian interests by ending the occupation. It could even throw in generous security guarantees to Israel to sweeten the offer. The alternative is many more years of conflict, increasing radicalization of not only Palestinians but the entire Arab and Muslim world, and the probable end of the two-state solution. Ehud Olmert himself referred to apartheid South Africa in warning what that would mean: one state, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, with roughly equal numbers of Palestinians and Jews--a greater threat to Zionism than anything Israel has ever experienced.