The recent Annapolis proceedings have taken the Middle East peace process out of its prolonged state of morbidity in three respects. First, they call for negotiations over “all core issues without exception.” Before Annapolis, Israel refused to consider negotiations on a final-status accord before Palestinians implemented their obligation, under the 2003 road map agreement, to disarm Palestinian militants. That demand constituted the mother of all oxymorons, since no Palestinian leader could end violent resistance to the occupation in the face of Israel’s refusal to reveal how much Palestinian territory it intended to retain. The Palestinians have lost to Israel fully half the territory recognized by the 1947 United Nations partition resolution as their legitimate patrimony. They are not about to renounce the right to fight, if necessary, to retain the remaining 22 percent of Palestine.

Second, by relinquishing Israel’s demand that Palestinian implementation of the road map’s obligations precede negotiations, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gained the right to demand that actual implementation of an agreement can come only after Palestinians have met those obligations, a demand that President Mahmoud Abbas accepted. This too was an important advance–provided an impartial third party monitors and judges compliance by both sides.

Third, the parties accepted the US decision to serve as that monitor, a role that until now Israel had arrogated to itself. A major obstacle to implementation of all previous agreements was the absence of a third-party monitor. Whether the United States can be an impartial arbiter remains to be proven. As indicated below, things have gotten off to a very unpromising start.

These accomplishments are potentially important breakthroughs, even if they remain highly problematic. By themselves, however, they cannot overcome the failure of Annapolis to deal with a number of major remaining obstacles to an eventual peace accord.

In an effort to reassure the Israelis, the Bush Administration repeatedly declared that the US role will be limited to “facilitation.” Given the discrepancies in power, wealth and influence that mark the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, a final-status agreement is inconceivable if the United States refuses to redress the imbalances between the two through its active intervention. The notion that “facilitation” alone will enable the parties to bridge their vast asymmetries is patently absurd.

That no agreement is conceivable between such radically uneven adversaries without US intervention is underlined by Bush’s insistence–echoing Olmert’s–that the success of the Annapolis peace process depends on Palestinian willingness to match Israeli “concessions.” This demand is stunningly insensitive to the fact that Palestinians are a people under occupation. As such, they have little to offer Israel by way of concessions, other than their continued subjugation and dispossession.

Of course, Palestinians are obliged to do everything they can to bring violence under control. That is why, even after an agreement is reached, its implementation would have to be delayed until Palestinian authorities have established the rule of law in their area. As for Israel, what is expected of it are not concessions but that it meet longstanding obligations imposed by UN resolutions, international law and previous agreements with the Palestinians. To call these Israeli obligations concessions is to undermine the negotiations before they begin, for they imply that Israel and the United States can demand that Palestinians forgo their rights under existing agreements and international law if they are to deserve an end to Israel’s occupation.

The position of Olmert’s government has been–and continues to be even after Annapolis–that Israel will not return to the pre-1967 border, that Israel will remain the sole sovereign in Jerusalem and that not a single refugee will be let back into Israel. Allowing that Palestinians will have to show flexibility in the implementation of their rights, particularly with regard to the demand for a significant return of refugees to Israel, it remains the case that these are indeed Palestinian rights, as defined by UN resolutions, the road map and international law. Israel is being asked to cease its violations of these rights, with its confiscations of Palestinian territory for settlements and outposts and housing projects that are intended to deny Palestinians a presence in any part of Jerusalem. For the United States to characterize Israeli demands for Palestinian giveaways as reciprocity for Israeli concessions is to add insult to injury–particularly since one would be hard put to identify a single concession Israel has made to the Palestinians.

These obstacles aside, Washington must abandon the fantasy that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement can be reached and implemented in the face of deep divisions between Fatah and Hamas, divisions that Israel and the United States have deliberately fostered. Palestinian acceptance of “painful compromises,” not to speak of their implementation, will be extraordinarily difficult in the best of circumstances. They are impossible without Palestinian unity. Instead of seeking to heal this Palestinian breach, the United States and Israel have sought to widen it, in the entirely unrealistic expectation that showering economic and other “gifts” on Abbas in the West Bank while strangling Gaza will lead to the defeat of Hamas.

For starters, promises to empower Abbas by removing obstacles and checkpoints that have shattered Palestinian life have been made repeatedly in the past, only to be repeatedly ignored by Israel’s security and military establishment. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has left no doubt this will not change. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis take these promises seriously any longer; if Bush still believes them, he is the only one who does.

Furthermore, continued strangulation of Gaza in the face of promised West Bank prosperity will only further weaken Abbas, who will be portrayed as a Palestinian Pétain, and fuel violence and terrorism that, at their first manifestation, will predictably serve as Israel’s pretext for abandoning negotiations.

Despite these formidable obstacles, optimists insist that if negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians proceed in good faith, it is possible that a more positive chemistry between the parties will somehow enable them to reach commonly desired objectives. Perhaps. But the problem is that instead of good faith, unimaginably bad faith has been manifested, even before the ink of Annapolis’s joint statement has dried.

Olmert and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, repeatedly promised they would remove every last “illegal outpost” and freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank. It is the very first of several obligations imposed on Israel by the road map. To this day, Israel is in flagrant violation of those promises.

The only thing Olmert seems to recall about the road map–other than its requirement that Palestinians fight terror–is Bush’s 2004 opinion in his letter to Sharon that Israel should be able to hold on to its settlement blocs in the West Bank, the road map’s provisions to the contrary notwithstanding. But Bush has no more right to unilaterally alter an international agreement than has Olmert or Abbas.

Olmert solemnly promised in Annapolis to freeze settlement construction and dismantle the illegal outposts. This undertaking was a condition for the participation of Arab countries. But two days after the adjournment of Annapolis the Israeli daily Ha’aretz revealed that Olmert’s colleagues–several deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers–are instead surreptitiously planning to “launder” the outposts’ illegal status, enlarge them and provide government support for their development into permanent settlements. As to the freezing of settlement growth, Peace Now and Israeli human rights groups have documented how Olmert gets around this inconvenience by simply attaching the names of old settlements to the new ones and calling them extensions of existing settlements.

Olmert’s government has also announced new construction in the Har Homa area of East Jerusalem, intended to close it off from its Palestinian hinterland. The government’s explanation for this is its intention to retain all Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, limiting negotiations to the Arab neighborhoods. This is in blatant disregard of the Annapolis understandings and in violation of the specific provision of the road map. Israel has no more right to determine unilaterally the status of any part of East Jerusalem than do the Palestinians.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that the new construction in Har Homa “doesn’t help build confidence.” This breathtaking understatement, the failure to suggest that such violations may incur international sanctions and the Administration’s silence on the subject of Israel’s continuing enlargement of settlements and outposts should tell Abbas and the international community all they need to know about what kind of impartiality to expect from America in its new role of “monitor and judge” of the peace process.

It also exposes the fatuousness of the Quartet (the UN, the EU, Russia and the United States) and the innocence of those who lecture Palestinians about institution building. We know the half-life of the institutions Palestinians have already built: only their rubble remains, and it should serve as a reminder of the futility of such efforts in the absence of understandings that show some awareness of the Palestinians’ ongoing dispossession and respect for their political rights.