Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Annapolis Conference

James Skillen


November 9, 2007

Does it come to late? Can anything substantial be achieved? Will it even take place?

These are some of today’s unanswered questions just a few short weeks before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice anticipates hosting negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Annapolis, Maryland. Although talk of this late-November conference has been going on for months, a date has not yet been set and the invitations to other participants have not yet gone out.

What does such indefiniteness suggest? Does it create the space Rice needs to pull off what the Oslo process failed to accomplish, what President Clinton could not achieve with his Camp David summit at the end of his second term, and what the Quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations has thus far failed to accomplish?

The positive signs are not insignificant. Olmert and Abbas have been engaged for weeks drafting a document to serve as the starting point for the Annapolis negotiations. As recently as last Monday, Abbas said he believed the path to peace is now clear and that a Palestinian state could become a reality before the end of Bush’s presidency. Israel’s Olmert has been equally upbeat, saying that all issues of concern to both sides would be on the table.

Nevertheless, given the intractable problems of negotiating a two-state agreement—which is what this process is all about—one wonders what is going on and whether the current process will produce anything at all.

In the first place, the three major parties—Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the U.S.—are starting late and from positions of considerable weakness. The Bush administration has done little toward this end for seven years and now has far less clout in the Middle East than it did before the Iraq war. Israel is divided: Olmert is barely holding on to his office and Ehud Barak, the defense minister in Olmert’s cabinet who, as prime minister negotiated with Yassir Arafat (and Clinton) at Camp David in 2000, is skeptical that an agreement can be reached. As for the Palestinians, Abbas is largely confined to the West Bank and does not speak for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip ever since winning elections there. (Sidelining Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. as well as Abbas strongly oppose, is one of the chief aims of an Annapolis agreement.)

Even assuming that Olmert and Abbas can negotiate a two-state accord, could they get anyone to follow them? Olmert’s government could easily fall if Israelis thought he gave away the store. Abbas, even with help from the Quartet, might be unable to compel Hamas to fall into line. And would Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, go along?

The difficulties facing negotiators are immense because the aims of Israel and the Palestinians are so different. In addition to the recognition of its right to exist, Israel wants Abbas to give up the demand that all Palestinian refugees have a right to return to what is now Israeli territory. And Olmert will have great difficulty negotiating away all the settlements Israel has built on Palestinian territory in recent decades, especially around Jerusalem. By contrast, Abbas wants Israel to return to its 1967 borders, to let the Palestinians make East Jerusalem their capital, and to establish a safe and secure territorial connection between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In September, Abbas was anticipating the completion of a framework agreement with Olmert before they came to Annapolis. Now Secretary Rice is saying that the Annapolis conference will attempt only to “kick off” new negotiations, not complete anything. Sound familiar? Cynicism about an Annapolis conference is rife in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East and it may never take place. But perhaps this time, against all odds, God will draw out something new and lasting from the abundance of human weaknesses and failures evident everywhere.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”