Stumbling Down the Road to Annapolis

My e-mail box has seen a great many messages in the past week calling for protest of the upcoming Middle East peace conference at Annapolis, MD. These have provided more evidence of how well the extreme right and left actually get along quite well despite disliking each other so intensely.

Americans for A Safe Israel is bringing its demonstrators to Annapolis. They essentially object to any settlement of the conflict that is not tantamount to a complete surrender on the part of the Palestinians and Arab states. They will be joined by the starkly Orwellian-named Shalom International, a Christian group that opposes any withdrawal by Israel from the Occupied Territories on religious grounds.

While no left-wing groups have, as of yet, announced any intention of physically protesting the conference, messages of protest from various small groups have been circulating. Most of these have been based on the point that the “Bush agenda” is being forwarded at the conference and therefore it should be opposed out of hand. Typically, alternatives are not presented nor, from my experience, even thought about for a moment.

Two liberal Jewish groups, Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu, have also announced that they plan to demonstrate in support of the conference.

In truth, this is much ado about nothing. The agenda for the conference has yet to be set, but the past few months have seen the Americans, Israelis and the Palestinian Authority all working overtime to tamp down expectations of this conference. And with good reason.

Before getting into that point, it needs to be stated that a conference of this type is not a negative development. There simply is no alternative to bringing the US, Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab League and the international community together to discuss the issues. The mere fact of such an event is a step in the right direction, although there can be some very negative fallout from it.

Unfortunately, the lessons of the two Camp David summits (the one that succeeded in 1978 and the one that failed in 2000) have been entirely ignored in this gathering. Even the modest goal of this conference, which is simply to restart negotiations on a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, needs to be pursued under certain conditions. One of the key features that distinguished the Carter summit in 1978 from the Clinton version in 2000 was the position of the various leaders attending in terms of their own terms of office.

Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were all secure leaders whose terms in office still had a lot of future to them. Despite passionate and politically significant opposition to their actions, all three leaders had strong bases of support both among the populace and in key political arenas in their respective countries. By contrast, the 2000 attendees were all on shaky ground. Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his presidency and desperately wanted a Mideast peace accord to overshadow what appeared to be his legacy of oral sex and impeachment. Ehud Barak’s coalition was falling apart amid sundry scandals and Hezbollah’s claim of victory and rise in stature in the wake of the withdrawal from Lebanon. And Yasir Arafat’s popularity was at an all-time low after the Oslo process had seen unprecedented settlement expansion and his administration was marked by autocracy, human rights abuses and corruption.

All the Camp David II leaders were desperate to redeem their reputations, but their needs diverged. Clinton needed a stable agreement. Barak needed to find a deal that allowed most of the settlers to stay in place, did not permit any return of refugees nor burdened Israel heavily in their compensation and did not diminish Jewish control over Jerusalem. Arafat desperately needed to show he was capable of standing up to the Americans and Israelis. These were obviously incompatible goals.

A similar situation takes hold now. George Bush’s presidency lies in ruins on the sands of Iraq. Ehud Olmert is facing a stream of scandals and the humiliating setback in Lebanon last summer has already been blamed on him. The upcoming release of the second Winograd report is said to put the blame squarely on Olmert’s shoulders for that war’s failures and he also bears the brunt of the botched withdrawal from Gaza and the constant flow of qassam rockets being fired at Israeli towns from there. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas is the most different from his predecessor, but this only worsens the situation. Abbas has presided over a split that might be a death blow to the Palestinian national movement while achieving virtually nothing for residents of the West Bank. Unlike Arafat, he has very little respect among Palestinians and virtually no ability to persuade his people to accept painful compromises.

Both Olmert and Abbas are being confronted not only with strong opposition from their typical political opponents, Likud and Hamas respectively, but are also being opposed by members of their own governing coalitions. Various PA officials, including Fatah members, have not only expressed a lack of confidence in the conference, but some have even said that Abbas must make no concessions at the conference. Meanwhile, Olmert is daily attacked by right-wingers, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, but faces a much more daunting opponent in his own defense minister. Ehud Barak, attempting to position himself for a challenge to regain the Prime Minister’s office for himself, has consistently undermined Olmert and the conference. Barak goes even further, though. There is virtual unanimity that the best outcome of this conference will be the restarting of serious final status negotiations. It is “the day after” that really matters, and Barak is moving to quickly start the diminishment of electricity to Gaza on December 2, a move which will clearly stir the pot and make any follow-up negotiations much harder. Thus, Barak hopes to prove Olmert a failure and set himself up as the only “moderate” alternative to Netanyahu.

All of this speaks to the need to ripen conditions before the conference rather than convene it in haste. The gestures provided by both Olmert (granting some limited amnesty to Fatah fighters, freeing several hundred Palestinian prisoners and announcing a freeze on settlement construction and the dismantling of illegal outposts, although this last has thus far been no more than words and one outpost removal) and Abbas (the increased security presence in Nablus aimed at proving to Israel that the PA can maintain security)have done little to raise confidence on the respective other sides. Syria has received no indication that it’s claims would be given serious attention and is therefore declining its invitation to attend the conference (although it did cancel a parallel opposition conference). There is every reason why virtually everyone, left, right and center, expects nothing from this conference.

It need not be this way. It has always been the case that the nature of the conflict, the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, buttressed by Israel’s (largely correct, though somewhat decontextualized) view that the Palestinian issue is intertwined with its conflicts with more credible enemies in the larger Middle East as well as domestic constraints on both Israeli and Palestinian leaders limit the maneuvering ability of both parties. Strong leaders have shown themselves capable of pushing past some of these issues, but these have often been in service of obstructing, rather than promoting comprehensive settlements (this was true of both Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon, for example). The only thing that can bridge this gap is strong American intervention, using both carrot and stick. This has, in the past produced some significant shifts and motion, such as the Camp David I accord, the Madrid conference and recognition of the PLO. Many of these have been mixed blessings themselves, but none of them could have happened without American intervention. In fact, without strong American use of both carrot and stick, there is little chance any progress will be made, now or ever.

The current administration has proven completely inept on the few occasions it has even deigned to attempt diplomacy, in this or any arena. It is loathe to employ the carrot and its use of the stick is akin to a bull in a china shop. Still, for the next 14 months, this is what we have. And I disagree with those who believe this an insincere effort on Condoleezza Rice’s part; I grant that there is every reason to mistrust her, and that she has no real support from the Bush-Cheney White House, but her actions seem to indicate that she has realized, far too late, what must be done and is trying, within the limits imposed on her by her bosses, to do it.

Until the United States exerts real pressure on Israel to take down all the outposts and completely freeze settlement construction, while simultaneously both enhancing quality of life for Palestinian in all of the Occupied Territories and finding the correct balance of engagement and pressure to help the Abbas-Fayyad government stop the attacks on Israel from Gaza and establish a modicum of security on the chaotic territories, progress will be elusive and fleeting. Conditions must be improved so that both the Israeli and Palestinian publics have both hope for the future and a reason to endorse the sorts of compromises that the masses on both sides currently oppose. It is inconceivable that the Bush Administration could do this, even if it wanted to, which it obviously does not. But some of the building blocks for such a future can be laid at Annapolis and in the year that follows. This should be supported, not opposed, by all who care about either the Israelis or Palestinians, or both. And in the interim, it is crucial that those with a desire for resolution of this conflict and a realistic approach to it come together to create significant political pressure to make it happen.Recent events, such as the Ackerman-Boustany bill in Congress, show that when there is sufficient political pressure applied, even the vaunted and exaggerated “Israel Lobby” embodied in AIPAC will follow the political winds. But only if people more sensible than those in that organization make it happen.