Analyze This: The long and winding road map

The Annapolis conference is looking increasingly irrelevant.

In Nablus, a new force of 300 Palestinian policemen deploy throughout the city with Israeli permission. In Jericho, a Palestinian military court finds six Palestinian Authority security officers guilty of dereliction of duty for surrendering their weapons and outposts without a fight during the Hamas takeover of Gaza last June. In Gaza, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh reaffirms his organization's right to wage war on Israel, while Kassams rain down on Sderot. In Ramallah, PA President Mahmoud Abbas meets with West Bank Hamas officials one day, and asserts to American officials the next that the Palestinians have fulfilled "90 percent" of the road map's preliminary conditions. In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni emerges from a meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to declare there are "problems" in preparing a joint statement of principles with the Palestinians toward the Annapolis conference. And Sunday night at the Saban Forum in the King David Hotel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert takes the stage to ask the questions on everyone's mind: "Why Annapolis?" and "Why now?" It's been a busy weekend on the Israeli-Palestinian front, with the above only a partial list of recent developments. Putting it all together in the hope of discerning a coherent trend is both daunting and perhaps unrealistic, with such a dynamic situation moving off in several directions at once. But at least one aspect becomes almost embarrassingly clear: The Annapolis conference planned to take place later this year, and being pushed for so ardently by Washington, looks increasingly irrelevant - if not even counterproductive - to the Israeli-Palestinian reality as it is developing on the ground in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Let's back up a bit; in fact, let's back up all the way to April 2003, when the road map was formally unveiled by the Bush administration, because the inherent contradictions between that approach and the decision to call the Annapolis conference are becoming clearer by the day. Introduced during the height of the second intifada, and designed to get a peace process derailed by the collapse of the Oslo Accords back on track, the road map was supposed to introduce new elements of accountability on both sides. Deadline dates toward agreement on final-status issues, accomplished in summit meetings between the respective leaderships, would now be dependent on fulfillment of an initial phase that required the Palestinians to end violence (or at least give a 100-percent effort to preventing it), while Israel would freeze settlement construction, including evacuating illegal settlement construction. Explicitly written into the protocols was that no international conference would take place until that confidence-building Phase I was completed, to avoid the disaster that took place in the 2000 Camp David summit. Needless to say, none of this happened; Yasser Arafat never intended to crack down on (or even stop his support of) the terror groups in his own camp, and the Sharon government was probably relieved that it therefore didn't have to move against outposts in Judea and Samaria, or to freeze building in the settlement blocs it wished to retain in any final agreement. With the road map hitting an almost immediate dead end, Sharon instead diverged off into the Gaza disengagement that was much more palatable to the Israeli public than concessions in the West Bank. Arafat's death and replacement by Mahmoud Abbas three years ago seemed an opportunity to finally get the road map in gear. But the ultra-cautious Abbas, unwilling to challenge Hamas without his own electoral mandate first, moved with Washington's approval directly toward elections, without fulfilling the preliminary conditions of Phase I. That proved to be a huge error, as Hamas's victory at the polls, and Abbas's agreement to enter into a coalition government with it, again stopped the road map at its starting point. Ironically, it was Hamas that cracked down on the PA, and not vice versa, when Abbas failed to mobilize his Fatah forces against them in Gaza last June even when his own interests were being threatened. But the subsequent break-up of the Fatah-Hamas government and appointment of Salaam Fayad as prime minister had the inadvertent effect of breathing new life into a possible implementation of the road map's Phase I, at least in the West Bank, where a Fatah-led PA might finally have both the leeway and motivation to crack down on Hamas and other extremist groups. Some of the developments cited above, such as the police deployment in Gaza and trial in Jericho, might only be cosmetic gestures at this stage. But like Abbas's exaggerated insistence that the Palestinians are fulfilling their road map conditions, at least there are indications that the PA understands that this is now the only real game in town. Combined with continued prodding by US security coordinator Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, additional logistical support provided by the EU of the type promised last week by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the beginnings of real cooperation between Israeli and PA security forces, the chance exists that the Palestinians might finally take their security commitments seriously. Conversely, the Olmert government would have to respond in kind with an overdue crackdown on illegal settlement outposts. Having then belied their current weak images and proven that both can take firm action within their respective national camps, Olmert and Abbas could have conceivably moved on to the international conference specified in Phase II of the road map to negotiate a Palestinian state with provisional borders, as well as to revive multilateral talks on regional issues with the surrounding Arab states. Maybe that's how diplomacy works - but not politics, especially presidential politics. Bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seeking wider Arab cooperation against Islamic terror networks, Rice and George W. Bush are in no mood to patiently oversee the road map process developing along these lines, as the clock ticks down on their time in the White House. Instead, they've called a conference in Annapolis whose timing and purpose appear outside of the road map framework, even as the latter is now starting to move along down the original route first set in motion by Bush four years ago. In her own speech to the Saban Forum, Livni seemed at pains to assert that, Annapolis or not, "The formula we have chosen is the road map. The original idea was to create a continuum of security - dialogue - permanent arrangement. We could have waited until the end of the first stage's implementation, but we chose not to, because we believe in dialogue with the Palestinians. However, we still have to provide a solution to the problems of security." Since Israel and the Palestinians are now already talking to each other on almost every level, Annapolis looks increasingly less like a shortcut in the road map than a potentially risky detour. So unless Rice can soon pull a rabbit out of her hat by bringing an Arab state such as Saudi Arabia into the conference - a prospect that looks increasingly dim - it's only fair to indeed ask, as Olmert did so defensively Sunday night: Why Annapolis, and why now? [email protected]