Mideast talks: ‘Keep your hopes high but your expectations low’

Prime Minister Olmert, President Bush, President Abbas
REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Bush joins Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (left) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Rose Garden Wednesday after meeting in the Oval Office to talk about the Mideast peace negotiations.


If fear of failure was prevalent among Mideast watchers before this week’s conference in Annapolis, Md., slim hope — usually overshadowed by skepticism — has been widespread since it ended. Two professors in the region, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, articulated the prevailing mood.

“If I had to describe it in one word, it’s skepticism,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science and communications at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “…There’s certainly no euphoria.”

“We believe it when we see it,” said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah. “How can an ordinary Palestinian believe that something is changing? The economic strangulation, the walls, the checkpoints, the settlements,” Jarbawi said. “What has changed basically? Three speeches.”

In a similar vein, Rami G. Khouri, in The Daily Star in Lebanon, noted the wide gulf that remains on all the core issues. “The commitment to negotiate tirelessly and to try to achieve a full peace accord within a year is valiant, but also romantic in view of the huge differences on core issues that have to be negotiated. Neither side has signaled any tangible willingness to make the crucial concessions needed for a full and lasting peace.”

Yet some positive currents flowed at Annapolis — beyond the fact that the conference came off at all. Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller, in a chat on WashingtonPost.com, even found an upside to the often-noted political weakness of both Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert. “It’s true that Abbas and Olmert are prisoners of their politics, rather than masters of them,” he said, “but weakness sometimes is a paradox. Weak leaders need to demonstrate their relevance and clearly can start a process” — adding, however, that “they’re gonna need help to finish it.” Charles Kupchan, at Council on Foreign Relations, echoed and expanded this line of thinking.

“Paradoxically, the adversities facing all the key players provide a glimmer of hope,” he wrote. “In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration desperately needs a win in the Middle East. Europeans, having deepened their engagement in Lebanon, Syria, and the peace process, are equally keen for progress. The region’s conservative Sunni regimes, fearing Iran and a Shiite resurgence, see a peace deal as crucial to dampening extremism and sectarian violence. The Palestinian Authority has for now lost Gaza to Hamas and realizes that a deal offers the best hope of averting further descent into division and chaos. A compromise similarly offers a weak Israeli government hope of appealing to centrist voters who appreciate that a territorial settlement offers the best hope for their country’s security in the long term.”

A long movie
After asserting that “the reasons to be cheerless are too numerous to count,” Jonathan Freedland, writing for the Guardian Unlimited, proceeded to enumerate them.

But he, too, sees “a slender chance” for building on past progress. “Sure, Olmert and Abbas are weak, but they seem to share something else too — a rapport which was entirely missing between Arafat and Barak,” he wrote. “They are not starting from scratch, but have been talking frequently for months. Nor do they have to reinvent the wheel — the outlines of a peace settlement are already well-known, chiefly in the so-called Clinton parameters and refined in a variety of other unofficial efforts. Ariel Sharon already did much of the heavy lifting in preparing Israelis for compromise, explaining that they will eventually have to give up land. … The peacemakers have fear on their side too. It was fear of Iran that brought most of the Arab states to Annapolis. They reckon that progress for the Palestinians will blunt Iran’s appeal in the battle of Muslim hearts and minds, pushing back Iran’s regional ascendancy.” So though, as Freedman put it, “there is no shortage of good arguments for pessimism,” the new process also has “some assets worth exploiting.”

Miller, in his online Post chat, captured the prevailing wish to exploit whatever assets exist while retaining some realistic doubt: “My only advice would be, keep your hopes high but your expectations low on Arab-Israeli peace — it’s a long movie and it’s really going to require a lot of effort by everyone involved to see it through.”

Susan Albright, a former editor of the Star Tribune’s editorial pages, writes about national and foreign developments.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bob White on 11/29/2007 - 04:32 pm.

    Wary hopes are certainly justified. On the wariness side are doubts expressed by the Middle East experts cited here, and by many others, about President Bush’s willingness to keep pressing Israelis and Palestinians to compromise. The essential elements for compromise are well known. The unknown is whether Bush and his top aides are committed to the grubby work of aggressive mediation day in and day out in the months ahead.

    But yes, there’s reason to hope. One reason lies in something said earlier by Aaron David Miller, whom Susan Albright quotes above. In a discussion in Minnesota a few years ago Miller made this point about a failed negotiation in 2000:

    When former President Bill Clinton conducted negotiations at Camp David that year, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was an eager participant. The Palestinian representative, the late Yassir Arafat, was not. Miller noted that Arafat came to Camp David only under intense pressure from Clinton. And if one party to such talks would rather not be there, no one should be surprised if the talks fail — even with tutelage by the enormously persuasive Clinton.

    Today Israel’s Ehud Olmert and the Palestinians’ Mahmoud Abbas may be weak leaders. Perhaps that weakness makes them all the more eager for peace. Which is one reason, however faint, for hope.

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