The United States certainly knows how to throw a peace party.
The president may be slightly challenged when it comes to pronouncing the name of the Palestinian Authority leader, but it was with entirely fluent pomp and efficiency that Mahmoud Abbas, Ehud Olmert, dozens of other participating delegations and hundreds of journalists were hosted at Annapolis this week.
Having belatedly recognized in the weeks leading up to the conference that they would have to confine themselves to formally relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks here rather than, as had been the earlier impossible intention, partly or even fully concluding them, the party planners set about injecting maximal drama into the occasion by way of compensation.
So it was that Olmert and Abbas, who had been staying with their teams just an hour's drive away in Washington, DC, were helicoptered to the Naval Academy here in separate sets of choppers. Safely back down, they were whisked away in separate, vast motorcades, with innumerable police, security and medical vehicles in tow, for a drive of less than a minute to the academy commander's home. There, President Bush, who had flown in separately, posed with Olmert and Abbas outside for the TV cameras, and inside for the stills photographers.
Next, a pool of privileged correspondents waited an hour to watch them stroll across the lawns to the Memorial Hall where the summit was launched. Meanwhile, in the hall itself, beneath a high ceiling and a series of ornate crystal chandeliers, and with a banner urging "Don't Give Up The Ship" as a backdrop, an unprecedented array of Arab and other foreign ministers had been ushered into their seats around the horseshoe-shaped table in preparation for the oratory.
The irony behind all the carefully constructed theatrics is that genuine drama was playing out in the very final minutes before those speeches were delivered. The initial joint statement of principles, the text with which Bush was to open proceedings, had still not been approved, despite weeks of marathon meetings between the sides and seven or eight separate lengthy sessions between Olmert and Abbas.
In scenes more private but not dissimilar to those engendered by Yasser Arafat's last-minute refusal to sign off on the maps under Oslo's Gaza-Jericho agreement in Cairo in 1994, tempers rose, an exasperated Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni lost patience with her negotiating counterpart Ahmed Qurei, and the intervention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was required to get Palestinian assent to a document which, though every formulation has significance, merely sets out the framework for negotiating rather than any binding terms of agreement.
This last-minute dispute must surely be recognized as a microcosm of the bitter and protracted argument that will doubtless accompany every step of the near-impossible journey toward a permanent accord in the accelerated timetable of the next year or so. Just 24 hours after all the ceremonies were over, indeed, Olmert was telling Israeli reporters on Wednesday that while he would be making every effort to meet the "end of 2008" ambition, if it didn't pan out, so be it. And while this was a particularly supportive US administration under whose auspices to work, he had spoken to every major presidential candidate and had no doubt that whoever succeeded Bush would, if necessary, maintain US backing for the new diplomatic effort, too.
THE CENTRAL change of tack that is intended to liberate what we should now start calling the Annapolis Process from the abortive efforts of the past two decades is the formal delinking of talks on the core "final status" issues from the day-to-day realities of Israeli-Palestinian life.
Where the Oslo process sought to gradually create an improvement of conditions on the ground, and of relationships between the two sides, that might somehow enable them to eventually grapple with the most complex and divisive issues, the Annapolis Process acknowledges that the situation on the ground is dire and worsening - Hamas has taken over Gaza and threatens Abbas's grip in the West Bank, rockets are raining into Israel, Iran is relentlessly arming the Islamists and encouraging further terrorism, Israeli security precautions have exacerbated Palestinian economic woesâ€¦ The aim now, therefore, is for a reverse Oslo process, where agreement on the thorniest matters, the creation of a so-called "political horizon," rekindles optimism among the Israeli and Palestinian publics, and encourages a new spirit of moderation that gradually enables a calmer reality to flourish.
It is truly an indication of how distant the United States had become from the defensive, hostile tone of Israeli-Palestinian relations that its diplomats seriously believed substantive progress could be made on the core issues in the run-up to Annapolis. But massively exacerbating the negotiators' challenge is the fact that not only are the prospects faint indeed for an agreement on the theoretical terms by which to end our intractable conflict, but that some of the most acute problems, unavoidable no matter how the diplomatic process is reshaped, lie right here and now, at the very beginning. In short, the notion of delinking the diplomatic and security aspects of peacemaking might sound fine in theory, but in practice it cannot be done.
Even as the negotiating teams came back home on Thursday to begin to organize the committees that are to grapple with the core issues, they must simultaneously address their interim commitments as set out in the "road map." Much as the Americans may encourage them to concentrate on the "political horizon," much as the leaders themselves may want to do so, the grim here and now simply cannot be pushed aside.
Abbas at Annapolis, and his various colleagues in the days and weeks preceding the summit, reiterated a whole list of "confidence building measures" they are seeking from Israel right away, which they say are vital to the credibility of the new diplomatic process - the removal of illegal outposts, a settlement freeze, the reopening of Palestinian government offices in east Jerusalem, the release of prisoners, the removal of West Bank roadblocks, even a withdrawal by the IDF from positions in the West Bank it retook in the wake of the second Intifada terror war.
But it is hard to imagine an Israeli government countenancing much if any movement on many of these issues, even those required by the road map, until it discerns real Palestinian efforts to inculcate the notion of compromise rather than foster the ongoing atmosphere of incitement against Israel, and accompanying tangible evidence that the Palestinian Authority is confronting Islamic terror and the extremists in its own ranks.
As a consequence of the security barrier, Israel may not be as vulnerable to suicide bombers as it was a few short years ago. But with Sderot under constant attack, arms pouring into Gaza, Hamas prevented from bringing Kassams to the West Bank only by the IDF's extensive presence and hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens vulnerable to attack in the West Bank itself, Israel is anything but sanguine as regards the extremists' potential to wreak further havoc. Dramatic "confidence building measures" in such a climate are almost inconceivable - most obviously because of the likely bloody consequences if Israel eases security precautions while the terror threat remains profound, and also because of public opposition and the small matter of the coalition's own stability.
The terms of the renewed negotiating effort make explicit that there can be no implementation of any peace accord, if reached, unless the "road map" is implemented properly in the interim, with all these security concerns addressed. Olmert clarified the stakes still further by stressing this week that there could be no implementing of a deal unless Abbas not only imposes genuine control in the West Bank but asserts effective rule over Gaza, too.
But since Abbas says he is depending on those Israeli concessions to bring momentum to the peace effort and is blaming Israel for complicating the path to peace, and since Israel dare not make such concessions in the current climate, the result is likely deadlock.
OLMERT IS emphatically correct in recognizing that the status quo does Israel no favors - that the Islamists are inexorably rising and that the very future of a democratic, overwhelmingly Jewish state of Israel depends, as he put it this week, on separation from the Palestinians.
Initially, of course, he sought to achieve this unilaterally, an approach whose credibility was crushed by the Second Lebanon War and is battered further daily by the Kassam attacks from Gaza. So now he is again seeking divorce by consent, and seeking to create constructive momentum in the final months of a supportive US presidency.
In one section of Olmert's address at Annapolis, however, he risked appearing to empathize with the Palestinian world view that holds Israel to blame for their abiding plight and for consequent extremism - a mindset that absolves the Palestinian leadership of primary responsibility for fixing both, and thus can only hinder the already faint chances of progress.
When the prime minister embarked upon a sentence about the many Palestinians who "have been living for decades in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew up, wallowing in poverty, in neglect, alienation, bitterness, and a deep, unrelenting sense of humiliation," it might have been anticipated that he would go on to urge Abbas and the Arab world to use the Annapolis opportunity to do precisely what Israel has done over the past 60 years - put aside the bitterness and the demand for a return to the homes of yesteryear, acknowledge the claims of both peoples in the Holy Land and the consequent need for compromise, and set about the long-belated integration of refugees and their descendants into a vibrant, forward-looking Palestinian society at peace with Israel.
Olmert did, a few sentences later, make plain to the Palestinian public that Israel would not countenance a "return," and that it sought "to assist these Palestinians in finding a proper framework for their future, in the Palestinian state." As Bush had stated just minutes earlier, the intended accord "will establish Palestine as the Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people."
But first Olmert declared: "I know that this pain and this humiliation are the deepest foundations which fomented the ethos of hatred toward us."
The prime minister was presumably intending to sound magnanimous and warm. But if he was going to veer into this territory, it would have been wiser to have noted that it was, and is, the Arab leadership's choice to have left the refugees to "wallow," and only then to have gone on to stress Israel's desire to help end the unnecessary suffering and its manipulation into hatred and violence.
The "pain and humiliation" felt by the original Palestinian refugees, real though it was, would have been alleviated from the start had the Arab leaderships accepted the international community's two-state solution and had the Palestinians mirrored the pioneering Israelis in setting about building a nation.
Olmert may have felt Annapolis was not the place to ascribe blame. But Israel's critics will certainly want to read his comments as constituting an expression of at least partial culpability for the ongoing suffering of those refugees, heartlessly "disconnected from the environment in which they grew up." And this carries the danger that Olmert, however unwittingly, contributed to the very Arab mindset he aspires to change, the mindset that has to change if the Annapolis Process is to have any more success than the previous failed efforts.
It is, sadly and predictably, the mindset that has been expressed relentlessly this week by Abbas's advisers at the Annapolis talks, and its essence is the insistence that Israel and only Israel is preventing peace in the Middle East and cruelly, inexplicably denying the Palestinians full independence. That Israel, born in sin, is the sole source of abiding Palestinian woe. And most debilitatingly, that it is therefore singularly incumbent upon Israel, rather than the task of a concerted and genuine partnership, to remake the dismal reality.
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