(photo credit: Courtesy Inna G. Young)
If bookmakers took bets on such things as the chances of moving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward in the upcoming Annapolis conference, those odds would have surely taken a turn for the worse this week.
There's the widening gap between Israeli and Palestinian expectations. There's the growing skepticism and discontent in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government - not just within the right-wing Shas and Israel Beiteinu factions, but even in his own Kadima party and its ostensibly more dovish junior partner, Labor.
There's the increased tension on the Palestinian side among members of their negotiating team, and the attempts by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to maintain some kind of relationship with a Hamas that absolutely rejects the goals of Annapolis.
And there's the disclosure that a recent joint report by Military Intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet Security Agency predicts that "even if understandings are reached in Annapolis, the chance of implementing them in the field is almost zero," because Abbas and the PA are too weak to do so even in the West Bank, let alone in a Hamas-controlled Gaza.
So why Annapolis, and why now, as Olmert asked on Monday in his speech to the Saban Forum? As the week went on, though, some plausible answers to those questions - at least more convincing than those the prime minister had offered - became apparent. And not all of them - in fact, few of them - relate to the Annapolis agenda.
Among those who have been puzzled by the real purpose being served by Annapolis is New York Times columnist David Brooks, the paper's token conservative pundit and Bush administration supporter. "What is Condi doing?," he wrote earlier this week, while visiting Jerusalem: Specifically, "Why is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spending her remaining time in office banging her head against the Israeli-Palestinian problem?"
The answer, Brooks concludes, pure and simple, is Iran. It's about building the so-called "coalition of the moderates" against Teheran, and doing it around an event focused on an issue they supposedly all agree about, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether Annapolis actually succeeds in helping bring that about - and Brooks suggests that even Rice doesn't necessarily think it will - is less important than its appeal as an attraction to bring together the potential members of an anti-Iran coalition. Or as he puts it, "It's like having a wedding without a couple, because you want to get the guests together for some other purpose."
He may well be right about that, at least from Washington's perspective. Countering Iranian influence in the region, including in Iraq, where US troops are trying to hold the country together, is surely the major impetus now driving the Bush administration on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
It could very well be that Jerusalem is motivated by the same thinking. Indeed, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that Israel can focus on countering the growing threat posed by an increasingly powerful Iran has been a general strategic principle going all the way back to the Oslo Accords. But never before has it seemed more urgent.
Brooks sees Annapolis as a spark for "the creation of a containment policy across the Middle East," and worries that "the whole thing could backfire and leave the anti-Iranian cause in worse shape than ever."
That's possible - but I seriously doubt that concern is causing too many sleepless nights in Jerusalem, or that decision-makers here share his (or Rice's) faith that Teheran's nuclear ambitions are going to be countered by a coalition between Israel and the likes of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Our security establishment made clear this week - as did Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - that it sees Teheran's nuclear program developing at a faster rate than intelligence assessments being made elsewhere in the world. A long-term grand plan for containment may no longer be quick or forceful enough to stop it.
That urgency was reflected in the dramatic escalation of comments regarding the Iranian program being heard from Israeli leaders this week. The personal criticism by Olmert and the Foreign Ministry of International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei for his soft-gloves approach to Teheran was unprecedented. So was Defense Minister Ehud Barak's comment on Wednesday in Beersheba explicitly stating that military action against Iran's nuclear facilities is now an option that must be considered.
These statements are in part a reaction to events on the ground in Iran, especially at its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. But surely there was some sober calculation involved in deciding that if Jerusalem is going to crank up its Iran rhetoric a few notches, a good time to do so is when the Olmert government is demonstrating to the international community our willingness to try and make peace with the Palestinians in Annapolis.
The same principle applies regarding preparations for a major IDF invasion in Gaza - not just to temporarily stop the firing of Kassam rockets, but to deter what looks more and more like another beach-head of the Iranian and global Islamic extremist forces directly on our borders.
This isn't to say that Israel is cynically going to Annapolis simply as cover for military actions it may have to take in the near future. The conference is not, as Brooks would have, simply a wedding being held on false pretenses for other purposes; the Olmert government is sincere about trying to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward.
But calculations involving Iran most certainly factor in as Jerusalem shows a willingness to boldly move ahead on the West Bank/Palestinian front - as it prepares itself for a post-Annapolis period that, on the Iranian and Gaza fronts, will certainly be no honeymoon.