November 26, 2007

November 26, 2007 | Commentary on Europe

A Small Mideast Step: Annapolis Meeting is Progress

The Bush Administration's long-awaited Middle East conference to resuscitate the near-dead Israeli-Palestinian peace process is slated to converge this week on tiny Annapolis, Md.

With the organizers themselves keeping their expectations low for the star-studded confab - a virtual who's who of Middle East-associated politicos from 40 countries and organizations - it's almost a sure bet the meeting is doomed to, well, limited success.

But who can argue with that? At least it's a start.

Sure, the three-day conference has been criticized - in advance - as nothing more than a photo-op or talk-fest, or merely a shameless effort by President Bush to shore up a legacy sagging under the weight of the Iraq war.

OK, so the Annapolis sitdown won't completely resolve the seemingly intractable 60-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No "two-state solution" will - poof - appear by week's end.

Nor will the participants be able to knock out an answer on Palestinian refugees or who controls Jerusalem in a couple of meetings. They won't nail down the Israeli settlement question, shift (let alone settle) any borders or end all violence.

And, yes, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government is weak and the Israeli public divided. Then there's the violent split among Palestinian factions - only the side of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party will be represented at Annapolis.

All in all, it's a far from perfect mix. But let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Look on the bright side: This week's meeting is likely to restart a negotiation process that has been moribund for seven years.

In fact, all the major players will descend upon the Naval Academy this week - including Saudi Arabia (the de facto leader of the Arab world) and Syria, neither of which even has diplomatic relations with Israel. (Don't hold your breath for an Israeli-Saudi handshake, though.)

Plus, the 22- nation Arab League gave its blessing to the conference at a Cairo meeting last week. (Hamas won't attend, and is none too pleased with the Arab League's "sellout" of the Palestinian cause.)

The Russians will be there, too. While Moscow has been no friend of the United States recently, the Kremlin has growing clout in the Middle East, especially with Syria and Iran - which, like Hamas, wasn't invited, either.

Indeed, Russia could help maintain whatever momentum the Annapolis get-together generates, as a member of the Middle East Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - a group established in 2002 to address the region's challenges, now led by Tony Blair). It's already been suggested that Moscow host the next round of Israeli-Palestinian talks as early as January.

But while Annapolis may re-launch Israeli-Palestinian discussions, the road to a deal holds no shortage of potholes - especially concerning Hamas and Iran.

First, an Israel-Abbas deal wouldn't be a true Israeli-Palestinian pact: He doesn't control all Palestinian forces or territory, and many Palestinians don't see him as representing the Palestinian people.

Islamist Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip - roughly half the Palestinian-held territory - back in June, ejecting or massacring cadres of Fatah. And Hamas still rejects the idea of Israeli statehood and continues to seek the Jewish state's destruction.

Indeed, Olmert said last week any deal can't be implemented until a moderate Palestinian government retakes control of Gaza. (And Hamas, in the runup to Annapolis, has warned it will continue to resist - meaning more violence.)

Iran has no interest in seeing Annapolis succeed, either. Condemning the talks as "useless," Tehran sees the gathering as nothing more than its Mideast Muslim brethren collaborating with arch-foe Israel.

Tehran also fears the formation of an US-Arab anti-Iranian alignment at Annapolis. It will certainly use its pull with Hamas and Hezbollah (which has also denounced the talks) to obstruct any progress on Middle East peace.

Iran is no doubt worried about Syria's participation in the Annapolis meeting, too. The beginnings of a Syrian-Israeli rapprochement over the Golan Heights could weaken Tehran's ties with Damascus - heck, even stabilize Lebanon.

Which points to how Annapolis is a success: Just getting more than 100 key players in the same room at the same time to talk peace is a real achievement.

Of course, the confab will only be the first play in a long, grueling game - but the "boos" from some in the stands are a pretty good sign of which side is losing in this matchup.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post