Diplomacy: Music to their ears?

Olmert and Abbas seem to have gotten what they came for out of Annapolis: a revived 'process.'

Olmert, Abbas shake 224. (photo credit: AP)
Olmert, Abbas shake 224.
(photo credit: AP)
If a documentary of the Annapolis conference is filmed in the future, the producer could do much worse than to select as a theme song the 1970s Sonny and Cher hit: "The beat goes on." This song fits the conference on a couple of different levels. On one level, it sums up what US President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were trying to do in Annapolis: signal that despite the failures of previous rounds of negotiations and peace conferences, the beat - i.e. the negotiations - will go on. But the song is appropriate on a completely different level as well. For even though the Saudis attended the conference, they continue to carry on with their policy of publicly shunning any contact - even the most basic and civil - with Israel. And even though the Syrians came to the conference, that took place on the stunningly beautiful grounds of the US Naval Academy - grounds speckled with gold, brown, crimson, burgundy and yellow leaves fallen from large oak and maple trees - they continued to declaim the same slogans as before, without any variation. And even though Abbas spoke of an agreement, he continued to say absolutely nothing in the way of preparing his people for the difficult compromises that they, too, will have to make to render any agreement possible. As for Olmert, even though he had the captive audience of some 40 world leaders, including representatives from 15 countries which do not have ties with Israel, he did not - because of a political need not to make any declaration that would irk coalition partners Avidgdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu) or Eli Yishai (Shas) - say anything refreshingly new or creative. And finally, even as Bush, Abbas and Olmert were meeting, talking and grasping one another's hands in an attempt to fire the imagination with images of famous handshakes of the past (Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at the Camp David signing, for instance), Kassam rockets continued to pound Sderot, Israel continued to launch military actions against the Gaza Strip in response, and the country once again labored under multiple "hot" terrorist warnings. In other words, the long-awaited and much-discussed Annapolis Conference came and went, and the rhythm of life in our little piece of the Middle East did not seem to change an iota. The beat went on. Olmert, to his credit, did not get sucked into all the hearing-the-fluttering-of-history's wings narrative that this type of event could easily engender. Rather, at a press briefing following his third and final meeting with Bush in little more than a 48-hour period, he demonstrated a sober approach to the whole process: "We do not need to lose proportion," he said. "This was not meant to change history." Rather, he said, the conference was meant to be the beginning of a process. At the same time, Olmert pointed out that it was not every day that Arab leaders attended this kind of conference and did not, for the most part, engage in ranting tirades against Israel, although both the Lebanese and Syrian representatives came close during their speeches at one of the sessions. "The Saudi foreign minister sat in the hall and clapped," Olmert said, referring to the reactions to his speech Tuesday inside the Naval Academy's Memorial Hall. "That is a fact, clear to everyone. The significance of this is that the Saudis see an importance in contributing [to the process]." The Saudi foreign minister did indeed clap - about a dozen times, gently - but he did not actually understand the speech, since neither he nor anyone else in his delegation put on the earphones needed to get the translation. But, never mind. Why quibble? The man was in the room, and the very fact that he was there - along with the Syrian deputy foreign minister - provided the only true variation to an otherwise very predictable beat. What was most telling about the attendance of both the Saudis and the Syrians was that they did not appear to receive anything dramatic from the US in return for their participation. Granted, the Syrians got their issue on the agenda by getting one of the working sessions on Comprehensive Peace in the Middle East to have in its long and very unwieldy title a reference to an Israeli-Syrian track. The complete title of the session was: "Towards a Comprehensive Peace in the Middle East - future separate tracks: Israel, Syria; Israel, Lebanon; and enhancing normal relations and security between Israel and the Arab world." But beyond that, they did not appear to receive anything substantive from the US. WHILE THERE was genuine concern among some in the Israeli delegation that Bush would make some rhetorical gesture to the Syrians and Saudis in his speech as payback for their participation in the conference, perhaps mentioning the need for accommodation on the Golan Heights or in Jerusalem, these fears never materialized. On the contrary, Bush took a roundhouse swipe at the Syrians by saying that Lebanon needed to be able to develop democratically without outside interference. And he also made no mention of Jerusalem. What this shows is that Syria and the Saudis attended the conference not because of anything tangible they received from the US, but rather because they felt it was in their interest to be there: Saudi Arabia, because of its fear of Iran and rampaging Shi'ite extremism; and Syria, because of its fear of isolation in the Arab world and desire to be seen again as part of the Arab consensus. One senior Israeli diplomatic official said that Bush's major achievement was creating a situation where Annapolis represented the consensus Arab opinion, and that what he was able to do was publicly bring into this tent some of those - like Syria - who are very much on the periphery. The hope is that by being inside the tent, they will modify their behavior. "The Syrians wanted to come, even though they didn't get anything, because if they stayed away they would be outside the Arab consensus, alone with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, not something they want," the official said. While for shorthand purposes the press liked to refer to the parley as a "peace" conference, in the final analysis, it was "fear" that brought together all the spectator states. The question now, however, is how far that fear can go in propelling the process further. Fear of Iran, for instance, did not get the Saudis to shake Olmert's hand, perhaps because this fear was overridden by another, stronger fear: how such a gesture would play on the increasingly radicalized streets inside Saudi Arabia. And fear of being left alone outside of the Arab mainstream will not propel Syria into severing ties with Hizbullah or compelling it to curb Hamas. Fear, as well, will not be enough to enable Fatah to unseat Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The fear factor may have been important in getting all the various countries in the same hall to listen to speeches about a two-state solution, but something much more - a significant change in how the various parties view their interests - will be necessary to sustain the process. THE SIGNIFICANCE of Annapolis, Olmert mentioned on numerous occasions, is that is got a process moving, and in the Middle East motion, the process itself, has value. For if the sides are in motion, this tends to camouflage a vacuum, and vacuums are abhorred because they can be filled by actors with less savory plans. Consider that since Bush first initiated the idea of a "regional meeting" back in July, this is pretty much where all the diplomatic energy has been directed. And now that negotiations have been formally launched, those negotiations will be the focus for at least a year, if not longer. In this period, other initiatives - such as a Russian initiative for greater involvement (Moscow has already proposed an international conference in Russia in January, an idea Olmert rejected) or a call by the international community to engage with Hamas - will pretty much be sidelined. Indeed, one of the benefits that has come from the launching of the Annapolis process and all the diplomatic efforts to bring the conference into being has been the sidelining of the idea that Hamas should be engaged. No small feat, considering that earlier in the year 10 EU foreign ministers, including those from France and Italy, signed a letter essentially calling for the re-evaluation of the international community's isolation of Hamas. "One of the major achievements" Olmert said, "is that it is now universally accepted that this process takes place without Hamas." Bush, flush with the success of his ability to convene the international conference with all its disparate elements, declared Tuesday that the conference laid the foundation of a Palestinian state. This seems a bit overstated. At Annapolis what was created was a framework that would keep the process in motion. For without all the trappings the US supplied at the venue - the pomp, the ceremony, the international umbrella - the bi-weekly meetings that Olmert and Abbas have held for months would likely have withered and ultimately died. Annapolis resuscitated the process, but the Palestinian state, as Olmert made clear in briefings with reporters, is still a long way off. The state will necessitate Abbas and the PA implementing their part of the road map and bringing Hamas to heel, a prospect that looks as daunting now as it did before Olmert, Abbas and Bush made their way to the US Naval Academy.