Will Annapolis Change Anything?

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

U.S. President George W. Bush, joined by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, makes a statement on the Annapolis Conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington November 28, 2007.

Sift through all the hype about President Bush's Annapolis peace conference, and it's hard to find grounds for optimism that much has changed in the dynamics shaping the Mideast's core conflict. Sure, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to talk about the "final status" issues of creating a Palestinian state, with the U.S. urging them on. But the governments representing the two sides in Annapolis may actually be further apart on the substance of some of those issues than were their predecessors who failed at Camp David.

At Annapolis, the parties agreed to talk, again, about the issues of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the fate of refugees and water rights, setting the goal of reaching agreement by the end of 2008. The key statement in the declaration adopted at Annapolis, however, is in its concluding paragraph: "Implementation of the future peace treaty will be subject to the implementation of the road map, as judged by the United States." In other words, the discussions launched by Annapolis will simply flesh out a political "horizon" as an incentive to implement President Bush's 2003 Roadmap. And therein lies the problem.

The Road Map was adopted in 2003, after the Bush Administration was told that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front was an essential precondition for the U.S. to win Arab support in Iraq. It, too, was launched with minor fanfare, as President Bush made what, at the time, were deemed historic calls for Palestinian statehood. But as any kind of peace initiative, it was stillborn.

The first phase of the Road Map required of the Israelis a freeze West Bank and Gaza settlements, and dismantle outposts built after March 2001. And it required that the Palestinians crack down on violence and dismantle "terrorist capabilities and infrastructure." Given that the U.S. — which is the arbiter of the Road Map, according to Annapolis — defines Hamas as a terrorist organization, that would presumably mean Abbas would have to dismantle Hamas. At the same time, Roadmap required extensive institutional reform of the Palestinian authority, including "free, open, and fair elections." Those were held, of course, in January of 2006, and they were won by Hamas.

So President Abbas is hardly in any position to implement the Road Map. Prime Minister Olmert said as much to the Israeli media the day after Annapolis, noting that Abbas "is a weak partner, who is not capable... But it is my job to do everything so that he receives the tools, and to reach an understanding on the guidelines for an agreement. Annapolis is not a historic turning point, but it is a point that can be of assistance."

Hardly a ringing endorsement. But Olmert is simply being honest. To implement the Road Map, Abbas would need not only to eliminate Hamas in the West Bank, but would also have to reassert control over Gaza. And the Israeli security services know better than anyone how unlikely this is. Nor would it be easy for Olmert to rein in the West Bank settlers, given his own political weakness.

Already, many in Abbas's own Fatah party are wondering what he achieved at Annapolis. The idea that he will gain the political authority to implement the Road Map from a process that is unlikely to give Palestinians on the ground much more than symbolic gestures is wishful thinking. Meanwhile, the attempt to envisage a peace process that excludes Hamas — which remains the majority party in the elected Palestinian legislature — gives that group incentive only to sabotage any progress.

Thus, the peace process as envisaged by Annapolis essentially requires Abbas to win a Palestinian civil war before any peace agreement can be implemented. His prospects for doing so at all, much less in the space of 12 months, are slim at best.

While some saw cause for optimism in the presence at Annapolis of the pro-U.S. Arab regimes — and Syria — but, like Abbas, having thrown in their lot with a Pax Americana in the Middle East, they simply have no alternative but to embrace whatever straws the Bush Administration offers. Their primary concern is the rising tide of Islamist militancy among their own populations and the growing influence of Iran. But those Arab regimes, led by Saudi Arabia, are also pushing for a renewal of the Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah. Unlike the Israelis and Americans, the Saudis recognize that no peace is possible if such an important segment of Palestinian society is excluded. Yet, excluding and eliminating Hamas and other "extremist" elements is the very premise of the process launched at Annapolis.

In fact, the strategic thinking behind the Annapolis initiative has less to do with the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations than with the wider regional situation: an effort to resolve differences in what the U.S. considers to be the anti-extremist camp in the Middle East in order to strengthen its anti-Iran front. But if that is the goal, Annapolis could as easily inflame the region as calm it.