Bush Rice 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
'If it would be easy, it would have been done long ago," President Bush declared in his Annapolis speech.
The achievement of a peace agreement in the course of one year that will end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will certainly not be easy, but should it be defined as "Mission Impossible," as so many detractors of Annapolis are now saying?
Cynicism can be so pervasive. Within minutes of the departure of the three leaders from the conference hall in Annapolis, the cacophony had begun: "Nothing new in the speeches," "We have heard it all before," "Bush said the same things in Aqaba," "The leaders are too weak to deliver," "Abu Mazen can't be trusted and Olmert's only interest is to survive as prime minister," "We must prevent another terror state being established," and so on and so on.
Let's face it. It is so much easier to be pessimistic, especially in our part of the world where the pessimists are proved right time after time.
On the face of it, they are bang on this time as well. Yet this time there are a number of differences from previous efforts that might, just might, swing the balance from failure to success. It certainly is a long shot, given the threats of Hamas on the Palestinian side and of Lieberman and Yishai (no comparison intended) on the Israeli side.
Those differences are real, and important. On the Palestinian side we have two leaders who reject violence and are dedicated to a peaceful solution. This is true and flies in the face of all those denigrators in our press who claim the contrary. Moreover, Prime Minister Fayad is determined to create good governance in the Palestinian Authority, and is being massively helped in his endeavor by the indefatigable Tony Blair. If anyone in the whole wide world can succeed in the thankless task he has set himself, it is Tony Blair.
As for Israel, there has been a growing realization, even among moderate right-wingers, that time is not on our side and that the two-state solution could be jettisoned in favor of a "one state for two peoples" formula, which would be disastrous for the future of Israel. Prime Minister Olmert, Foreign Minister Livni and Defense Minister Barak are unanimous in their view that the status quo represents a danger that must not be maintained. That belief is percolating downward. If the negotiations that are to begin on December 12 gather steam and make progress, more and more Israelis will support them, for the vast majority of Israelis do want peace and are willing to pay a price for it - they just don't believe it is possible to make peace with the Palestinians. If the negotiations prove otherwise, then Israelis will support the process.
A third difference is the massive international support that Annapolis has engendered, especially by Arab and Muslim states. This certainly was not the case at Clinton's summit at Camp David; the Arab states stood aside, and did not play any role in pushing Arafat to accept the offer on the table. If Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan had then acted, the outcome might have been very different.
The Annapolis conference, in contrast, had the backing of virtually the entire Arab and Muslim world minus Iran and her allies. The new geopolitical line-up in the Middle East, with Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and Shia-dominated Iraq casting an ever-longer shadow over our region, has made all the difference. The Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and the Gulf states now want to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict solved; they have an interest to put it behind them, and that is a situation that had not existed in the past.
The divide between moderates and extremists in the Middle East, between those who support terrorism and the ones who fear it, was one of the factors spurring on President Bush to go to Annapolis. His speech underlined his conviction that a solution to our conflict would transform the entire situation in the Middle East, a link that in the past we had strongly opposed. He gave a firm undertaking in his speech of American support for the peace effort; he made it clear that he is determined to see it succeed.
In contrast to president Clinton's Camp David summit, this is not a one-shot affair; rather, Annapolis has been the launching of a process that the US will accompany and back to the hilt. The fact that there will be a high-profile American general who will act as judge of the Israeli and Palestinian implementation of their commitments is a new situation, something the Palestinians had demanded and that in the past we had vehemently opposed. The time cap for the negotiations - the end of 2008 - is also something that we had not wanted, but demonstrates American determination to reach a result before the end of Bush's term of office.
CAN IT succeed? On the face of it the difficulties seem well nigh insurmountable. Yet the fact that we are negotiating a shelf agreement, whose implementation will only take place after Israelis and Palestinians will have carried out their pledges with regard to the first chapter in the road map, may, perhaps, make it possible. We will have to curtail all building in the settlements and remove all illegal outposts, and there will be an American team to make sure that we do it. The Palestinians will have to dismantle the terror infrastructure, and make sure that all violence ceases. No easy homework for either side. This time, however, we will not be the judge regarding the Palestinian efforts. General Jones will be doing that.
Yet even with all these differences from previous efforts, the chances of reaching an agreement by the end of 2008 are, at the very best, fifty-fifty. The road to success is heavily mined; many obstacles are strewn along it. It will need Herculean efforts to overcome them.
The American role will be critical. At Annapolis they demonstrated their clout, both in the manner they "convinced" the Israelis and Palestinians to sign the joint statement at the very last minute, and particularly by their success in bringing so many leaders from Arab and Muslim countries to the conference. With American help a settlement may be achieved, but even if 2009 dawns without a peace agreement having been yet signed, the negotiations that will have taken place throughout the year will have drawn us nearer to the ending of our conflict, nearer to peace.
Despite the skepticism and the pessimism, despite all those snide remarks that had preceded the conference, we can safely say that Annapolis was a success, a milestone in our checkered history that, after such a long absence, brought us back to the negotiating table. Let us hope that the aftermath will be even more successful.
The writer, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, is publisher of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.