Two months into my daughter’s first year at school, she sat with her frieds, on oversized chairs, for the obligatory class photo that will forever serve as the official memento of her 2007-2008 Pre-K year. The school year may be barely two months old and still have some 80% of the way to go, but we already have the memento.
The analogy to President Bush’s much vaunted Middle East peace even in Annapolis should be obvious: Having heard the warnings from all and sundry that a failed conference is far more dangerous than no conference at all, the Bush Administration has acted prudently to avoid the danger of failure — by making the objectives of the event so nebulous as to make anything short of a fistfight between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas a sign of success. A “peace conference” designed to last less than 24 hours and whose official objective is now simply to launch a year (or more, depending on who you ask) of ongoing negotiations on the shape of a two-state peace plan really amounts to nothing more than a class photograph taken at the beginning of a year — except, of course, unlike a school photograph, there’s a lot less clarity over what, if anything, will happen at the end of the that year. In its most ambitious objective, right now, the Annapolis conference is for Israelis and Palestinians to joinly sign on to a suitably vague set of general principles and good intentions (or reiterating principles covered years ago) to launch that year (or more, depending on which side you ask) of conversation. Even that, we are told, is in doubt, and the two sides may have to issue separate statements of good intention and vague principles — although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this was simply good media management, i.e. diminishing expectations to such a point that a joint declaration of vague principles and good intentions will be treated as a “breakthrough.”
Some of my colleagues whose views I respect and who pay close attention to these things see grounds for optimism: My friend Scott MacLeod sees the event as signaling a turnabout by the Bush Administration, in which the U.S. will now turn belatedly but seriously to its long-neglected responsibility to see the parties through to a viable peace agreement. He notes the potential pitfalls, but argues, along with the International Crisis Group that if the Bush Administration does the right things in the year after the event to keep the process going, Annapolis could be the beginning of a decisive turn for the better.
But, unfortunately, I feel compelled to play the Grinch. Here are some reasons why:
When Ariel Sharon walked the Bush Administration back from the previous administration’s approach to completing the Oslo process, he succeeded in getting the U.S. to take the question of a political solution off the table altogether. According to President Bush’s Roadmap, there would be no discussion over the shape of a two-state solution until the Palestinians had complied with the Roadmap’s security demands, i.e. dismantled Hamas etc. At the time, some like current Israeli president Shimon Peres, warned that this was removing even a political “horizon” from Palestinian political life, giving those most cooperative with Israel nothing to point to in their argument against those more inclined to resistance. Essentially, what Annapolis is doing is reviving the idea of the “political horizon,” beginning open-ended conversations about what might transpire if those security steps are met. But the Israeli leadership is absolutely clear, internally, that none of this will be implemented, because there is simply no chance of the current Palestinian leadership being able to deliver on the terms of Phase I of the Roadmap. Everyone knows the parameters of a two-state political settlement, because those have been exhaustively negotiated through Camp David and Taba. The current discussions are essentially covering all the same ground, with no likely departure from the consensus achieved at Taba in the weeks before Sharon came to office. But an horizon, by definition, is beyond reach.
When the Western powers suggested, at Yalta, that the Pope be brought into discussions over the shape of post-war Europe, Stalin famously retorted, “how many divisions does he command?” The same is essentially true for Abbas. The Israelis and Americans are going into talks now with a Palestinian leadership unable to deliver. And they know it. This is talking for the sake of talking, and showing that talks could potentially lead somewhere under very different circumstances.
All of those regimes, including Abbas’s, who have thrown in their lot with the floundering Pax Americana in the Middle East have no alternative but to show up at Annapolis, and hope — against hope — that the Bush Administration is ready to do more than it has ever done to press the Israelis into withdrawing from the territories conquered in 1967. What they’ll get, though, at best, is a process that promises to reach that point at some unspecified date in the future. Still, where else are Abbas and the Arab regimes going to spend next Tuesday?
The idea that any U.S. Administration can press Israel to do things that it’s not comfortable doing (and peace cannot be comfortable for the Israelis, as we’ve seen) under present circumstances in Washington is naive. And that’s even before we get to the point that all players now realize that the current administration has only a year left in office, and the Israelis probably needn’t fear a less indulgent Administration if the Democrats win in 2008. The Palestinians are hoping it can only get better after Bush, but then they believed it would get better when he replaced Clinton, too. Even on its short fuse, it’s far from clear that the Bush Administration actually understands what is required for peace, if the letter Bush signed guaranteeing Israel’s claim on settlement blocs that the U.S. had previously regarded as illegal and illegitimate, is anything to go by. Don’t ask these guys to come up with a map…
At best, Annapolis and the year that follows is going to be more process, but certainly no peace. U.S. power in the region has continued ebb, sharply, and the basis for believing that a bilateral process between Israel and the PA can achieve a two-state solution today appears hopelessly naive — the balance of power between them, and within each side’s electorate, essentially precludes it. The only basis for achieving a two-state solution now, if one is still possible (which I wouldn’t bet on), is for such a solution to be enforced by the international community. Essentially, it would require the United Nations to give the force of international law for a framework that defined the borders and other final status issues between the two, and pressed both sides to accept that framework — it may be easier for politicians on both sides to be presented with an offer they can’t refuse, rather than to have them face their electorates on the basis of negotiating compromises that their political bases would deem impermissible. After all, Israel came into being on the basis of the international community telling the inhabitants of British mandate Palestine that it would have to be partitioned. It’s not like there’s no precedent. But somehow, I think you’ll agree, that’s extremely unlikely to happen.