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.