Daunting may be too tame a word to characterize goals of the upcoming international Mideast peace conference — pardon me, the international Mideast meeting — in Annapolis. (Steven Erlanger’s piece in The New York Times Monday noted that the event has been rhetorically downgraded in an effort to curb expectations.) But daunting is the best I can think of — short of near to impossible, bordering on foolhardy — to convey the way diplomats and other Mideast analysts have been describing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s aims just weeks before the event, tentatively set to begin Nov. 25.
Expectations are already high, as seen in a letter sent to President Bush and Rice, co-signed by a group of national security/diplomatic luminaries including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Lee Hamilton. After stating that “failure risks devastating consequences in the region and beyond,” the signatories laid out a detailed plan to ensure success. The conference must, they said, be “substantive, inclusive and relevant to the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians.” In addition it “should set in motion credible and sustained permanent status negotiations under international supervision and with a timetable for their completion.”
That may be more than Rice can bite off, let alone chew. While her goal “is to have the participants endorse a joint statement on the core principles for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” wrote Dennis Ross, Mideast envoy for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, “the two sides now are far apart, with each wanting ambiguity on what they must concede and specificity on what they will get.”
In a recent column Ross went so far as to suggest holding off on the conference. “Having raised expectations that the meeting will be a transforming event in peacemaking, she [Rice] cannot suddenly fall back to launching negotiations with no follow-through. That argues for waiting — and convening the meeting only when she has a clear ‘day after’ strategy for what will follow it. The content of the meeting matters; setting an arbitrary deadline for it should not.”
University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, writing in the Baltimore Sun, also worries, seeing two factors that could doom Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking: “The first is what happens in the West Bank the morning after. … If there is no profound transformation on the ground, such as the removal of a significant number of roadblocks and checkpoints (the single most detrimental factor for the Palestinian economy and psychology), Annapolis will become a new metaphor for diplomatic failure.” The second factor, he says, is Hamas, which “retains the capacity to revive large-scale violence, which would inevitably alter priorities and make diplomacy more difficult.” He suggests sending a signal to Hamas “that it could gain if it at least acquiesced.”
Now comes the killing in Gaza of at least six people as Hamas dispersed a Fatah rally that commemorated Yasser Arafat on the third anniversary of his death. The clashes between Hamas and Fatah, says Khaled Abu Toameh in the Jerusalem Post, “are a reminder of the huge challenges facing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the eve of the U.S.-sponsored peace parley …. The fighting shows that Fatah and Hamas are far from resolving their bloody power struggle despite reports of Arab and Islamic mediation efforts and secret negotiations between the two parties.” The deepening divisions among the Palestinians, he says, “cast a serious shadow of doubt over Abbas’ ability to deliver at the Annapolis conference. Moreover, the severe crisis raises questions about Abbas’ ability to sell any agreement with Israel to the Palestinian public.” And we haven’t even gotten to the Israelis, who have their own internal divisions.
Erlanger’s article noted that “the long buildup to Annapolis, together with Ms. Rice’s many trips to the region, have given birth to a new verb in Israeli government circles: ‘lecondel,’ meaning, to come and go for meetings that produce few results. The word is based on Ms. Rice’s first name.” If Rice ignores Dennis Ross’ advice and goes ahead, we’ll know whether the verb applies to Annapolis in just a couple of weeks.
Susan Albright, a former editor of the Star Tribune’s editorial pages, writes about national and foreign developments.