By Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 24/10/07):
It takes a special kind of genius to unite the warring parties of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but George Bush may just have pulled it off. His proposal for what the US administration calls a "meeting", rather than a peace conference, in Annapolis, Maryland, before the end of the year has elicited a unanimity unheard of in the Middle East. From the hardmen of Hamas to the hawks of Likud, there is a rare consensus: Annapolis is doomed to failure.
"On the Palestinian street, no one has a good word to say for this exercise," says the analyst and longtime negotiator Hussein Agha: "At best people are sceptical, at worst they are calling for a boycott." Two recent opinion polls on either side of the divide show emphatic majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians convinced that success is impossible. That sentiment is shared at the highest level. Yesterday Gordon Brown, at a press conference with the visiting Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, lowered expectations so far that they were somewhere around his ankles. "We're not complacent about the outcome," he said by way of understatement. "We don't have false hopes."
Even the US administration cannot muster much faith in its own initiative. In a long and detailed speech on Middle East policy at the weekend, Vice-President Dick Cheney made only one passing reference to Annapolis, in just a single paragraph on the Israel-Palestine conflict. One suspects the Cheney-led hawks within the administration would not be too downhearted if Annapolis fails, thereby reducing the standing of its chief patron, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, regarded as dangerously soft by the Cheney camp. Ominously, the date for the event is already slipping. Once pencilled in for November 26, it's now scheduled only for some time "before the end of the year".
If the vice-president is hardly dreading failure, he's not the only one. Olmert's domestic rivals, led by Likud's Bibi Netanyahu, would shed few tears. Similarly, Hamas would believe itself vindicated if the Palestinian president, Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, went to Maryland in search of peace and came back with his hands empty. All Fatah's cosying up to the west, Hamas would say, had been for nought.
But such calculations leave out the peoples themselves. Most of them surely know the high price of failure. They saw it just seven years ago, after the Camp David talks collapsed, ushering in the second intifada. This is the pattern in the Middle East: a failed peace initiative does not lead to mere stasis but active deterioration. If there's a chance to move forward and it is wasted, everyone falls back - into violence and bloodshed.
What, besides bitter experience, convinces everyone that Annapolis is destined for disaster? It begins with the weakness of the three key players. Bush is a lame duck, a year away from winding up what even non-partisan historians are fast concluding is one of the worst presidencies in history. Olmert's reputation was shattered by the calamitous war in Lebanon of 2006; he has survived but is still hobbled by multiple corruption inquiries. According to Haaretz columnist Lily Galili, Olmert "has an impressive parliamentary majority, but he lacks moral legitimacy".
None of the Annapolis trio is weaker than Abbas. He rules only half his people, those in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Some say his writ does not run even there, that his government is, in effect, no more than the Greater Ramallah Council. And legitimacy is a problem for him, too. As three short but remarkable films by Clancy Chassay reveal, Hamas and Fatah are locked in a conflict so bitter that President Abbas is incurring the genuine hatred of part of his people. Abbas is reviled, for example, for ordering Palestinian doctors and nurses in Gaza to go on strike - or else forfeit their salaries. If they work, thereby making life in Gaza bearable, they will get no money. "May God burn him," one Gazan woman says of Abbas.
Not that Hamas is behaving much better. Chassay's films also show the Islamist movement beating up and arresting Fatah dissenters, one of whom complains that Gaza has become "a police state" since Hamas took over in June. This week Amnesty International slammed both Palestinian factions for serious human rights abuses, including torture. It means that Abbas will head to Annapolis - if it happens at all - as one combatant in a civil war. That fact has allowed Netanyahu to taunt Olmert that he is talking to a man who cannot deliver, a Palestinian who may be willing but is not able to make any deal that could hold.
Annapolis is further cursed by likely absences. Originally the US administration talked up the event as a regional conference that would bring together key states in the neighbourhood. Egypt and Jordan might be dragged along, but the others are not keen.
Which leaves the key explanation for the current pessimism, a sentiment that crosses all boundaries: a simple lack of faith in the Bush administration to get the job done. One insider speaks of the "ignorance and amateurishness" of the American effort. Others rail against the years after 2000, when the Bush team refused to engage in the peace process at all; they note the scramble to get involved now, when Bush is desperate to have a foreign policy legacy beyond the single word "Iraq". Rice has travelled plenty, notes Agha, but without any clear sense of what she wants or how to get it. Even the very idea of Annapolis has been a mistake, he says. It has converted a positive into a negative. Instead of people marvelling at the fact that the two sides are talking about core issues for the first time in seven years, "everyone is focused on a conference that might not achieve anything". The administration should have been content, for now, to walk slowly towards dialogue. Instead it has rushed to the big event of a peace conference, trying to skip past the painstaking advance work of making sure the parties were ready.
And yet all those involved - certainly at the unseen, back-channel level - are not yet walking away. Despite years of frustration, they are dogged, tenacious people with a knack for seeing light in the gloom. They note that neither side is naive enough to be looking to Annapolis to settle the conflict. Instead, both Israelis and Palestinians are merely after a text that might serve as a guiding set of parameters inside which the final status issues - the tough questions of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem - will be resolved in future. The model, says one of those involved, is UN resolution 242, which became the reference point for all the key agreements signed by Israel and Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians.
There have been such outlines before, most notably the Clinton parameters of 2000, but they have never been formally accepted by both sides. If such a text could be agreed at Annapolis, it would have great meaning (even for the recusants of Hamas, who have, it should be noted, never challenged Abbas's right to negotiate on the Palestinians' behalf). And in this sense, at least, the weakness of the three players could almost be an advantage: they are all desperate to have something they could call victory.
So Annapolis is not yet a failure but, as I may have said before, when it comes to the Middle East, it pays to have the lowest possible expectations.