Many questions surround the peace talks at Annapolis this week, not least among them how far the Bush administration plans to climb out on the ledge to get a settlement. With the Syrians deciding to attend, the prospects for a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appear brighter than any recent time, at least on the surface. The White House will not publicly push for any particulars, though, leaving some to wonder whether the conference will succeed at any level:
President Bush's national security advisor said Sunday that the president would not adopt a more activist role in Mideast peace negotiations that start today, even though many observers believe the United States must step up its direct involvement if the effort is to succeed.
On the eve of a U.S.-convened conference in Annapolis, Md., launching the first formal peace talks in seven years, Stephen J. Hadley said Bush believed Washington's role should be to aid and encourage Israelis and Palestinians, not "lean on one side or another and jam a settlement through."
"History has suggested that those efforts to jam have not worked," Hadley said in a conference call with reporters. "We have said from the beginning -- the president has said -- that it is the parties themselves who have to make the peace."
The president's position is likely to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is politically weak at home and fearful that tough concessions could bring about his government's collapse. But it will almost surely disappoint the delegation headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which has been hoping American pressure could force Israeli concessions.
The U.S. stance also is likely to displease many of the Arab and European governments attending the conference that have been urging a more active role.
Why hold a peace conference in the US if the US plans a laissez-faire approach to the negotiations? According to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, the US will not even prompt for deadlines on either a plan or implementation targets. Having watched their predecessors inadvertently provoke an intifada in 2000 and having had to live with its aftermath, the Bush administration doesn't want to create any false hopes ahead of Annapolis, and they don't want to get blamed for any failures afterwards.
That may make some sense, but it leaves open the question as to why they're bothering in the first place. While not immediately apparent, it could be to earn some credit for future negotiations on sanctions against Iran and other efforts in the Middle East. Tony Blair in particular repeatedly called for the US to make a renewed effort in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, virtually non-existent as it is. In order to keep Europe engaged in our agenda, we have to remain engaged in theirs -- and they want progress on the Palestinian question.
Of course, any progress depends on the Israelis and the Palestinians, an obvious point that the White House hits heavily in the prologue to the talks. Both Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert are weak enough to need a deal more than either party has before now. With Syria participating, it could result in a negotiated settlement on a broad range of issues, but that's a thin chance even with Hamas marginalized.
Many people wonder why any talks get held at all, but this conflict won't end in a military settlement, unless Israel gets vanquished. With the Arab nations surrounding Israel, its best option for peace is a negotiated settlement that puts Egypt and Jordan at the head of the Arab coalition enforcing its commitments. None of the nations in the area will allow Israel to sweep the Palestinians out of Gaza and the West Bank, and Israel won't annex the territories and give the Palestinians a vote in Israeli government. A sturdy settlement for peace is Israel's best hope, and the US its best guarantor.
Eventually, a settlement will occur. The question is whether the Palestinians will stick to it, and whether the Egyptians and Jordanians will ensure that they do. Right now, that doesn't appear to be the case, but the Annapolises should continue to gauge that question.