Muddling along from Annapolis to Moscow

Israel may find itself pressured to attend yet another international conference next month

According to a well-known Jewish saying, the difference between a wise person and a merely clever one - is that while the latter may succeed in getting out from an unpleasant predicament, the former, wouldn't be caught in it in the first place. The proverb doesn't explain what happens when the supposedly clever one isn't clever enough to do even that, namely, to get out from a dire situation of his or her own doing. Nobody, of course, would accuse the present Israeli government of being especially wise, but nor does it seem to be clever enough to find its way out of the political and diplomatic maze it has got itself in. In going to Annapolis, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ignored one of the first rules of Israel's traditional diplomacy: Try to avoid international conferences at which you are bound to find yourself ipso facto in a minority. Should or could Israel have refused the beckoning of a US president? Well, in the past sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't. Back in 1977 the president Jimmy Carter decided to convene just such an international event in Geneva, to be based on a joint Soviet-American Declaration, the drift of which, to put it mildly, did not bode well for Israel. To prime minister Menachem Begin and foreign minister Moshe Dayan, it was clear that the consequences of a conference on these terms, Israel facing the Arab states, the Soviet Union, the UN and a not very friendly American president, had to be averted - and hence in the course of an all-night, sometimes quite lively, session with Washington's top diplomats at the UN Plaza Hotel in October '77 in New York, preceded by a meeting with the president himself, Moshe Dayan successfully laid Geneva and the Soviet-American declaration, to rest. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security Adviser and presently an occasional foreign policy adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, later bitterly complained that he didn't understand how little Israel could have made Washington change its position. GRANTED, Olmert is no Begin and Livni no Dayan. Nor can one compare Carter with George W. Bush whose friendship and understanding for Israel's security concerns is beyond doubt. But that makes Israel's diplomatic mishandling of the situation look even worse; did Olmert and Livni even try to get assurances from Washington about Jerusalem or to re-confirm the president's commitment to Ariel Sharon with regard to Israel's future borders? Apparently not. When in 1991 Yitzhak Shamir agreed to attend the Madrid Conference, he did so on the stipulation that the conference and the political process which was to follow it, would be based on UN Security Council Resolution 242, which had linked any Israeli withdrawals from "territories" to security considerations, thus recognizing Israel's right to defensible borders (a pledge later reiterated by George W. Bush) - and only after Israel had received in writing far-reaching American assurances, including a clause that "the US would not support the creation of an independent Palestinian state." Neither Jerusalem, nor refugees or the so-called land for peace principle were part of the Madrid agenda. Conversely, ahead of the Annapolis conference there apparently was very little prior coordination between Israel and the US, which has resulted in more than a few misunderstandings - including on Israeli security measures and on construction in the supposedly agreed-to settlement blocks and in and around Jerusalem. But the most fundamental error of Annapolis, of course, was putting the Palestinian "statehood cart" before a weak horse which could hardly hobble along, let alone gallop on its remaining two legs - the other legs being in Gaza and Damascus. By now it is fairly obvious that by the end of this year there will not be a final agreement, and certainly not one that could be implemented. For reasons of political convenience to all the main players, the US, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert, there could, however, be some kind of a framework agreement, a document of principles, referring one way or another to the core issues - Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders (the real core issue still being most of the Arab world's, including many of Abbas's supporters refusal to acknowledge Israel's right to exist). Olmert in his usual cavalier fashion, may believe that, as the saying goes, "paper is patient" and that whatever this document will say - it can always be discarded later. So why worry? Experience, including the ill-fated Yitzhak Rabin "deposit" on the Golan, shows that it doesn't always work that way and that in fact any commitment given now could hamper more serious and realistic peace talks in the future. RUSSIA, WITH the half-hearted support of its Quartet partners has now proposed a follow-up conference to Annapolis to take place sometime in June in Moscow, which will include the Syrian issue (which explains Syria's President Bashar Assad all of a sudden going public with purported peace-feelers with Israel), an initiative which has more to do with Moscow's rekindled ambitions in the Middle East than with Arab-Israeli peace. While the Palestinians enthusiastically support the Moscow conference idea - seeing it as an opportunity to continue the pressure on Israel - the government is demonstrably and rightly unhappy with it. Olmert was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as telling Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that "what we need to make peace in the Middle East is for the two sides to sit together to talk rather than going to international conventions. This going from one convention to the other is not something I am particularly in favor of." Well put, Mr. Prime Minister - but why didn't you think about that before embracing Annapolis? The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.