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Now that the dust has settled from the Annapolis conference, and before the effective beginning of the negotiation process it created, it might be helpful to summarize the strategic issues the Annapolis process has raised thus far. At this point there are more questions than answers.

First and foremost: was the conference an important step toward ending the Israeli- Palestinian conflict? Or was this merely one more in a long list of essentially fruitless meetings? Only time will tell.

Referring to the underlying strategic motivation shared by many of those attending Annapolis, was the conference instrumental in further crystallizing an anti-Iran, anti-militant front in the Middle East under US leadership? Or was Arab and Muslim countries’ attendance prompted by little more than knee-jerk deference to the Bush/Rice invitation, reflecting the disarray and impotence of most of the Arab world today?

From the Israeli standpoint, one key concern is how committed the Arab states are to help shepherd an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to offer incentives and rewards in the spirit of the Arab peace initiative. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s call at Annapolis for the Arab world to normalize relations with Israel forthwith was obviously either naive or an instance of grandstanding for his Israeli audience. But will the Arabs reciprocate if and when Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas begin making progress? Egyptian officials say they will, but we haven’t heard from the Saudis.

From the Palestinian standpoint and for the objective good of the process as well, we must also ask: how committed are President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to applying pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to carry out their roadmap phase I commitments? In other words what, if anything, will Washington do when General James Jones reports back that due to coalition constraints Olmert refuses to remove an outpost and to reopen Orient House, or that Abbas is invoking pressure from his own Fateh militants to justify delaying a crackdown on terror? For seven years Bush has held back from serious involvement in Israel-Arab affairs. How far, in an American election year, will he now go?

Apropos domestic political constraints, how will both Olmert and Abbas escape them? In this regard, Olmert’s problems with right wing coalition partners like Shas and Yisrael Beitenu pale alongside the challenges facing Abbas in seeking to "deliver" on his security commitments in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Abbas’ options regarding Gaza, none of which are good, appear to range from reestablishing a Fateh-Hamas unity government all the way to collaborating in an Israeli reoccupation of the Strip. At the end of the day, both leaders are dealing with dysfunctional political systems that render it extremely difficult for the majority of their publics to give concrete expression to their support for a two-state solution.

In this regard, Abbas and the Palestinian political system suffer from a particularly acute problem that no one at Annapolis or beyond appears to be dealing with. Who will take charge of reforming Fateh and converting it from a corrupt and inefficient national liberation movement that deservedly lost an election to Hamas, to a reasonably functional and clean ruling party of a future Palestinian state? Without this vital step toward proper governance, the Palestinian state-building project appears destined to continue to founder.

Finally, what expression will now be given to the aspiration expressed at Annapolis to promote a comprehensive peace process that includes Syria, Lebanon and regional issues as well as the Israeli-Palestinian track? Is a conference in Moscow early in 2008 the solution? Was Annapolis relevant to the efforts of many Israelis and Syrians to promote a peace process between their two countries–a more promising venture by far than the highly problematic Israeli-Palestinian track that was ostensibly launched last week?

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