Critical Currents: Ignore the spoilers

Most Israelis want Annapolis to succeed.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Now that the possibility of the Annapolis conference is becoming a near probability, the Israeli excuse industry is going into overproduction. A barrage of reservations, hesitations, objections and qualifications is being churned out by a variety of different worry entrepreneurs. All deserve attention; none should be allowed to derail the initiative before it has even begun. Not only is the credibility of Israel's persistent claim to peace at stake; so, too, is the present auspicious chance for its pursuit. The first set of self-imposed barriers to the resumption of full-scale negotiations is psychological. Segments of the Israeli public are suspicious of current efforts and are doubtful of their utility. They have little confidence in diplomatic moves, and even fewer expectations. This fear of peace syndrome is not new. It has surfaced regularly whenever real opportunities for accommodation have presented themselves in the past. It has been fueled by setbacks and disappointments. It stems from that historically rooted Israeli sense of vulnerability verging on paranoia which nurtures a willingness to suffer the insecurities of the present rather than to boldly mold what appears to be an uncertain future. The best response to this ubiquitous yet elusive mindset is diplomatic success. This was the case with Egypt and Jordan; it can pertain to the Palestinians as well. There is little, if any, cost to entering the process. Israelis, like their equally equivocal Palestinian counterparts, have neither the luxury of skepticism nor the life experience that fosters unbridled optimism. The second group of potential impediments is perceptual. Israelis are having difficulty adjusting to the reactivation of serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority after having been told repeatedly by successive leaders that there are no trustworthy partners on the other side. This is especially hard since the president is the very same Mahmoud Abbas who was so summarily dismissed as irrelevant barely six months ago. Some Israelis have been unable - or unwilling - to make this transition. Some are suspending judgment. And others may be open to looking at the PLO leadership differently, but remain wary of its ability to deliver on any agreement. The myth of the absent partner is being replaced by that of the inadequate one. CHANGES IN perceptions occur partly as a result of revised insights. Israelis today cannot hope for a more congenial partner than the Abbas government backed by an Arab League anxious to enter a new phase of relations with Israel. They are prodded along by attitudinal shifts which are now, albeit belatedly, beginning to take place. New views, however, are best cemented by action. Without a first step at Annapolis, Israelis might find themselves the unhappy prisoners of their own outdated beliefs. The third kind of obstacle is decidedly political. Ehud Olmert, unwell physically and beleaguered publicly, is dependent on a quixotic and demanding coalition. He appears to lack the capacity, much like his Palestinian counterpart, to move ahead even if he opts to do so. There is something circular, if not spurious, in this argumentation, especially given the equally firmly held opinion that the prime minister's diplomatic campaign is a last-ditch effort to resurrect his tarnished popularity. It is impossible to claim, in the very same breath, that he lacks the legitimacy to take those very steps which might help him regain his legitimacy. Indeed, the launching of a time-bound, goal-driven series of pointed negotiations may yet set in motion a process which is independent of the personalities responsible for its initiation. This is exactly what happened after the Madrid conference when Bush, Baker and Shamir began talks whose results they observed from the sidelines. This is what can also transpire today. A fourth set of hesitations focuses more squarely on practical preconditions for progress. Past detractors of the road map are now calling for the fulfillment of its first phase before any international gathering is convened. Their insistence on the complete dismantlement of the terrorist infrastructure (while Gaza is under Hamas control) is being met by renewed Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze, coupled with a heartfelt plea for humanitarian relief. THE ATMOSPHERE on the ground is, unquestionably, a far cry from what is conducive to successful negotiations. There is no reason to believe that it will improve without a political arrangement. Tangible measures are vital. These however, cannot precede diplomacy; they must become an integral part of such an effort. To suggest otherwise is a sophisticated, yet transparent, way of saying that no steps should be taken at all. The fifth, and final, type of objection centers on the possible product of the Annapolis project - substantial progress toward a lasting two-state solution. Opponents of this outcome, those fringes who see it as anathema ideologically, are once again busily engaged in picking away at the substance of the permanent-status issues. At least they openly profess the real reason for their antipathy rather than hiding behind a cloud of prevarication. They simply reject any real peace initiative and have no alternative to offer. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives on Sunday to make the last arrangements before issuing invitations to the gathering, she will be greeted by all these arguments and many more. She would do well to put them in perspective: They are far less intense, emphatic or categorical than those articulated in the past. Most Israelis are fed up with the spoilers and their doublespeak. They are willing to give peace a chance one more time.