The Annapolis conference and process came about as a result of domestic politics in Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah and will continue to influence these domestic scenes, especially in Israel and Palestine.
There is no doubt that one of the main motivations behind the conference and subsequent process came from the domestic political travails of the three relevant leaders. US President George W. Bush wanted to achieve something positive in the Middle East, or at least to give the impression that no matter how late, he tried. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas thought that by reviving the peace process he might bring back hope of a solution to a despondent public, strengthen the peace camp and, by the same token, weaken the Hamas-led opposition. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert assumed that engaging in a peace process could protect his job, including from the possible negative effects of the coming Winograd report on the Israeli government’s performance in the 2006 Lebanon war.
But having convened the conference and started the process, the respective leaders have found that subsequent dynamics pay little heed to their original intentions. This, obviously, is especially so in Palestine and Israel, not only because this is the arena of conflict, but because the two leaderships are domestically vulnerable.
Olmert, for example, in order to quell criticism of his leadership and still keep his broad coalition intact, planned to pursue a process that would not touch the substance of the conflict. But already, considering the strong exchange of views and accusations over the continued settlement program and other final status issues even before they have been discussed in actual negotiations, the resulting political turbulence is worrying the Israeli PM.
On the Palestinian side, the effects of Annapolis have been more dramatic and far reaching. Hamas, which is in complete control of the Gaza Strip and enjoys the support of the majority of the public as evidenced by the last elections, engaged in a chain of increasingly hostile actions with Israel that have led to the Gaza-Israel front becoming the center of gravity in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The suffering in Gaza, caused by brutal Israeli bombardments and killings as well as the inhumane embargo on trade to and from the Strip, has directed not only the attention and sympathy of most Palestinians and Arabs to Gazans; it has created a feeling of solidarity among Gazans that plays into the hands of Hamas. Furthermore, the public image of Abbas was significantly damaged when he appeared on TV with Olmert on the same day the Israeli army killed 19 Palestinians in Gaza.
The fact that neither the Annapolis conference nor the subsequent process convinced Israel to stop the expansion of settlements and the building of the wall or curtail the continuing military incursions has also had a very negative effect on the public position of the Palestinian Authority led by Abbas and Salam Fayyad.
In other words, the Annapolis process, its shortcomings and lack of momentum and outcome, is beginning to backfire against the Palestinian leadership and appears to be also weakening the Israeli coalition government, which recently lost one partner.
The peace process that can empower the Palestinian leadership (indeed, the only way to empower the Palestinian leadership, in particular Abbas) is a process that can show the Palestinian public that the leadership is thus able to successfully bring them nearer to the end of occupation. Any other process will leave the public searching for an alternative.
Hamas will continue to gain public support for as long as it is perceived as the party fighting the occupation and the Israeli government does not respond positively to the peaceful efforts of the Palestinian leadership. The last two weeks are a case in point: these were characterized by failed attempts on the negotiating front and brutal attacks by Israel on Hamas and they have shifted public support toward Hamas.