Making matters worse

About ten days ago, I made the rounds of the think tanks in Washington, DC, discussing current American/Middle East issues with colleagues. From scholars of the far right to the left, no one believed the Annapolis conference would succeed. The level of cynicism regarding the Bush administration’s motives and capabilities in the Middle East was depressing. Between the lines was a consistent assessment that, in pressing the case for the conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was out of her depth.

These dim prospects for the Annapolis conference cannot be separated from earlier and more obvious failures of US policy in the greater Middle East, from Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran and Iraq to Lebanon, all intertwined with the fiasco of President Bush’s democratization program for the region. In Arab eyes the Annapolis conference–a last-ditch American attempt to deal with an issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that has been neglected for seven years–is intimately connected to these other problematic issue areas. The Annapolis project seeks to display an American commitment to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will ensure broader Arab backing for the US position in Iraq and regarding Iran. So far, the Saudis, Egyptians and others are not impressed.

None of this might matter if Washington had politically capable leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah to work with. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lacks authority–the latest news of a Fateh assassination plot against PM Ehud Olmert last June in Jericho simply drives home the point–and Olmert’s coalition threatens to come apart the closer he comes to Annapolis. There is nothing new here: Abbas has constantly failed to translate his good intentions into a working government, while Olmert brings to Annapolis a dowry of failed strategic judgments, criminal investigations, Winograd commission condemnations and a coalition structured for survival, not peace.

Why don’t Bush and Rice perceive this and save themselves the embarrassment? Presumably because their own understanding of Middle East dynamics since 9/11 is so poor. Their energies would be far better applied to backing, encouraging and directing Quartet envoy Tony Blair in his task of building those very Palestinian security, economic and governance institutions that have failed hitherto and whose efficient functioning is a necessary prerequisite to any successful effort at creating a viable Palestinian state. In the long term, that would enhance Arab and Israeli trust in their policies far more than the Annapolis conference, which should be postponed.

We Israelis and Palestinians, in our ongoing failure to end our conflict, should presumably avoid pointing the finger at Washington and blaming it for our troubles. Yet we have long since recognized that our conflict is bigger than the geographical confines of Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. The broader crises in the Middle East–Islamization, Iraq, Iran, the weakness of the Arab state system–have in recent years been exacerbated by American mismanagement. Now Bush and Rice are heading for yet another failure in the region. This one too will only compound existing problems.