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More post-Annapolis assessments

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Update from AIJAC

December 4, 2007
Number 12/07 #01

This Update contains some additional assessments of what last week's Annapolis conference accomplished from a variety of commentators with differing points of view.

Perhaps the most comprehensive and positive assessment we have seen comes from former US State Department Middle East expert David Pollock, who identifies not less that five different areas where he sees positive achievements from Annapolis. These are: agreements on negotiating mechanisms; improved Israeli-Palestinian atmospherics; increased isolation of Hamas and its supporters; improved chances of creating a coalition against Iran; and putting US policy in tune with regional popular support for a two-state solution. He also doesn't ignore the serious challenges, and to read his full assessment, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius sees a lot of positive opportunities opening up out of Annapolis, including with regard to Lebanon and Syria and maybe even Iran, as well as on the Israeli-Palestinian front.  He stresses the importance of US assistance with Palestinian security, but also the apparent conciliatory speech from Syria and the opportunities created by this and by the apparent compromise in the deadlock over the presidency in Lebanon. He also mentions increased US leverage against Iran. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE.

Finally, top Israeli historian Michael Oren has a different take, arguing that the conference should be understood as a success even though, he argues, the chances of completing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking are pretty remote. He argues that international conferences have historically been poor vehicles for resolving Israeli-Palestinian issues, but that the conference was useful for strengthening a Middle East coalition against Iran and opening the possibility of wooing Syria away from its alliance with Iran. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE. Another analyst who supports the conference for its other diplomatic effects but remains strongly sceptical of the chance for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking in the short-term is Barry Rubin. On the other hand, discouraging too much cynicism about Israeli-Palestinian prospects is former senior Israel Foreign Ministry official David Kimche.

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Changed Middle East Gives Peacemakers a Chance

By David Pollock
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 2, 2007

The Arab-Israeli diplomatic event in Annapolis began and ended in just nine hours last Tuesday, and the media have moved quickly on to other things. But this was a significant event, not a one-day wonder.

Here are five good reasons why:

First, Annapolis achieved its primary goal: setting up an ongoing mechanism for Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, starting with another formal session in just two weeks, on Dec. 12. This breaks the diplomatic deadlock for the first time since 2000, when the late Yasser Arafat aborted Bill Clinton's Camp David summit, and launched an armed uprising against Israelis instead. Resuming such talks, of course, offers no guarantee of reaching any agreements but at least it holds out that possibility, while reducing the odds of an uncontrolled escalation of violence and increasing the odds of alleviating Palestinian hardship.

Also, because the two sides have now agreed to conduct negotiations on short-term practical problems and also on long-term "final status" issues -- at the same time, rather than in sequence -- progress on one set of issues will not necessarily be hostage to the other. And even if no major agreements are reached by the target date of late 2008, the new process will at least keep the peacemaking option open for the next American administration.

Second, and at least as important, Annapolis has already created a much better atmosphere for serious discussions among Palestinian and Israeli leaders. The shift in their rhetoric is nothing short of remarkable. Instead of calling for U.S. pressure on Israel, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat now says American intervention is less important than the will of the two parties themselves, and that President Bush's "arms-length" approach to future negotiations will actually prove helpful as a result. Instead of listing Israeli conditions, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tells the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that "if the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished." This kind of talk is not only new but also quite encouraging for those who seek Palestinian-Israeli peace.

Words alone, of course, will not be enough to resolve any of the very tough issues -- security, borders, refugees, Jerusalem and others -- that are still on the agenda; but such words do matter more than many cynics may suppose.

Third, Annapolis will help isolate the Hamas position: No peace with Israel, not ever. This is the primary significance of the attendance at this conclave of Syria, which still hosts Hamas in Damascus, and of Saudi Arabia, which last spring coaxed Hamas into a short-lived "Unity Government" with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but has since turned sharply against the radical movement. Whether Syrian President Bashar al-Asad will really stop supporting Hamas is an open question; the watchword, as Israelis say, must be "kabdehu v'khashdehu [respect him, and suspect him]." But at least now that option is on the table for bargaining, possibly at follow-up Israeli-Syrian talks in Moscow early next year.

Moreover, all this Arab attendance at Annapolis has already inflicted a significant symbolic political defeat on Hamas. Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh, when he speaks to Arab audiences in their own language, now rules out any concessions to Hamas, claiming that his own Fatah faction represents the will of the Palestinian people as a whole. Few commentators recall that Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal actually attended a very public meeting with Israel's prime minister a decade ago, at Sharm al-Sheikh -- but this time he did so in an obvious and potentially more meaningful rebuke to the extremist Hamas position.

Ironically, it was the Hamas takeover of Gaza that pushed most of these other players into a positive posture at Annapolis, in response to the clear and present danger this radical victory posed to their own political positions.

Fourth, in a related development, Annapolis helps counter Iran's aggressive bid for regional primacy. Iran opposed this meeting, but the Arabs came anyway. By itself, this will certainly not neutralize Iran's nuclear weapons program, or even undermine President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet it does put the Iranian and Arab governments on opposite sides of a highly salient international issue, on which the Arabs chose to side with the United States. This will be modestly useful in cobbling together a more robust informal coalition to address the Iranian challenge -- especially if the follow-up negotiations after Annapolis begin to show further promising results.

Fifth, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, Palestinian-Israeli peace talks put U.S. policy more in tune with popular aspirations across the region.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, public opinion polls suggest that most people in the Middle East, whether Arabs or Israelis, really do support a peaceful two-state solution -- Israel and a new Palestinian state coexisting side by side -- to this perennial problem. For example, the 2006 Zogby/Telhami polls from six key Arab states show majority support for this position, even in Saudi Arabia, and even in the aftermath of Israel's war against Hezbollah that summer. Since then, other polls show that Arab popular approval ratings for extremists such as Hezbollah and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, or for Iran and its president, or for terrorism against civilians of any kind, have actually dropped considerably, to a small minority.

And Palestinian and Israeli polls have long consistently shown solid majorities, on both sides, favoring a two-state solution. Moreover, the latest Palestinian polls demonstrate that public support for Hamas has declined significantly since its violent takeover of Gaza last June, to under 40 percent in the West Bank and even less in Gaza.

That's the good news. The bad news is that after Annapolis we still have major obstacles to overcome: many difficult and unresolved issues, weak leaders, fragile governments, and the ever-present prospect of terrorist disruptions or other foreign policy distractions. Most of all, there remains the problem that Hamas controls Gaza, so any agreements or just negotiations must somehow work around that hard fact on the ground. Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian negotiator, vows that if he and his Israeli counterparts actually do produce a peace agreement, his own moderate faction will "get back Gaza without firing a shot." To this I can but reply with one of my favorite Arabic phrases, ya ret [if only]!

For the time being, the best practical approach is probably to focus on the West Bank, leaving Hamas alone to deal with the mess it has made in Gaza.

Nevertheless, there are some things that can and should be done now to keep the spirit of Annapolis alive. Most immediate is the donors' conference for Palestinians due Dec. 17 in Paris. Arab governments flush with revenues from near-$100 per barrel oil should be pressed hard for aid to the Palestinians -- and then pressed even harder to deliver on their pledges. They should be pressed to put the economic squeeze on Iran at the same time, in their own enlightened self-interest. After that, it will be vital to keep the negotiations moving forward as steadily as feasible, whether on the concrete "road map" issues of security and Palestinian living conditions, or on the larger terms of permanent peace, or both. And it will be even more vital to resist the siren song of special pleading to "include" Hamas in any of these discussions or agreements -- unless and until it demonstrates that, contrary to its very nature, it will fulfill the minimal conditions of renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and accepting previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

If these simple (not to say easy) steps are followed, the very good new beginning accomplished at Annapolis will have the best possible prospects of ultimate success, if not next year in Jerusalem then perhaps in the years to come.

Pollock, previously a State Department expert on the Middle East, is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew and holds a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East studies from Harvard.


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The Road From Annapolis

By David Ignatius

Washington Post, Sunday, December 2, 2007


So what comes after the modest but real success of the Annapolis peace conference? Where will Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice take the process she has set in motion?

The view at the State Department -- beyond relief that the occasionally chaotic logistics of the conference worked out -- is that a number of diplomatic opportunities are opening up. The pieces of the Middle East puzzle are starting to move, creating room for openings involving not just the Palestinians but also Syria, Lebanon and perhaps eventually Iran.    

Rice began talking in January about a "realignment" in the Middle East that would bring together moderate Sunni Arab states to resist Iranian-backed radicalism. From the beginning, that approach included restarting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that had languished because of U.S. inattention. For Rice, Tuesday's meeting in Annapolis -- with George Bush, Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert looking out at smiling Arab diplomats -- was a group snapshot of this realignment.

Annapolis was a setback for Iran. That country's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tried hard to dissuade Syria from attending; his efforts, I am told, included calling his ally, President Bashar al-Assad. He failed, but if the Annapolis process should languish, Iran and its proxies could quickly regain the upper hand. That's the danger of what Rice has set in motion. Now she has to make it work.

The Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations will start Dec. 12 with the basics, such as forming the committees that will discuss the agenda. Rice doesn't want these preliminaries to drag on for months. She hopes substantive negotiations on a peace treaty will begin by early January.

A separate "trilateral committee" should also begin meeting in December to discuss security issues surrounding the "road map," with a U.S. representative joining the Israelis and Palestinians as arbiter. The United States will name a day-to-day facilitator, perhaps a retired military officer, to develop metrics so the two sides can measure progress on security at regular weekly or biweekly meetings.

After dragging its feet on security assistance for the Palestinians the past two years, the United States has finally recognized that this is a crucial variable. To beef up the American effort, Rice on Wednesday named retired Marine Gen. James Jones as her "special envoy for Middle East security." Jones is an adept mediator and has many friends in Congress and in Europe, where he was a popular NATO commander.

Jones will work with Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to understand how to fill the potential security gap created by a Palestinian state that, by design, will be weak militarily. What defense arrangements should be made for the Jordan Valley with the Jordanians, who have a strong army and close relations with Israel? What steps can be taken now to prevent the West Bank from becoming a launching pad for missiles, as Gaza has become? How can the modest training effort for Palestinian security forces in Jordan be expanded quickly, perhaps with European money? These are some of the issues on Jones's agenda.

A happy Annapolis surprise was the positive speech by Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, which American officials viewed as a break in the ice of U.S.-Syrian relations. Before publicly embracing a Syrian-Israeli track, Rice wants to see Syrian cooperation in electing a new president in Lebanon. But U.S. officials credit Syria for reducing the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, and they are planning regular security meetings with the Syrians.

Lebanon is one example of how the Middle East logjam is beginning to break. After several months of deadlocked negotiations over a new president, the pro-American parties holding a slender majority in the Lebanese parliament announced last week that they will back the Lebanese army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman. America's key Lebanese allies, Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, are both said to be comfortable with Suleiman as a compromise candidate. The Lebanese general has managed the trick of being friendly with Damascus, which originally backed his appointment, and also friendly with Washington. This compromise is not a perfect solution, and it leaves unresolved the future of Lebanon's volatile Shiite militia Hezbollah. But it's certainly preferable to a return to civil war.

The big strategic challenge in the Middle East remains Iran. Rice believes that in dealing with such an adversary, it's important to have some leverage. The Annapolis conference and recent American successes in Iraq have given the United States and its "realignment" allies a bit more of that strategic heft. The key now is deciding how to use the new leverage in a timely way, before it's lost. Tehran isn't yet on Rice's travel itinerary. But someday soon it should be.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues.


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Middle East Peace Through Anxiety

By MICHAEL B. OREN

 

New York Times, December 2, 2007

Annapolis, Md - LAST week’s multi-national summit meeting here was about many things, the least of which, perhaps, was the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Behind the calls for the creation of a Palestinian state that would live serenely and stably alongside the Jewish state, beyond the vision of a Middle East at last absolved of its longest-running conflict, was the paramount question of power — who in the region wields it and who in the region wants it. Indeed, while Annapolis is unlikely to succeed in bridging the gaps between Israeli and Arab positions, it effectively drew lines in the sand between those nations siding with America and the West and those allied with Iran.

As a rule, international conferences have never served as effective frameworks in the search for Middle Eastern peace. The British held the first one, the St. James Conference, back in 1939, and failed to reconcile the warring Jews and Arabs of Palestine. The United Nations tried next at Lausanne in 1949 and met with similar results; Arab delegates refused to sit at the same table with the Israelis. The Geneva Conference, jointly sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union but without the participation of the Syrians and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, convened in December 1973, and unraveled a few days later without a single sentence exchanged between Arab representatives and Israelis.

Far more pomp and optimism attended the Madrid Conference in 1991 where President George H. W. Bush, flush from his victory over Iraq, heralded a new era of Arab-Israeli understanding. Such empathy was notably absent, however, as Israeli and Arab leaders exploited the forum for trading accusations. Stymied, the comprehensive talks dissolved into separate Syrian-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli tracks that led ultimately nowhere.

The Annapolis gathering, at least superficially, seemed different. Avoiding the rancorous rhetoric that poisoned previous gatherings, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, ardently reiterated their commitment to achieving peace, even at great sacrifice. Present at the table were not only the Syrians and the Palestinians but also the Saudis — talking to, if not yet shaking hands with, their Israeli counterparts.

Nevertheless, the chances for any progress emerging from Annapolis seem at best remote. Peace treaties in the past were forged by strong statesmen — Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan’s King Hussein.

But Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas are two of the region’s weakest leaders, unpopular among their own people and discredited by corruption charges. And President Bush, who, unlike his father, has not won a war in Iraq, is hardly perceived as muscular in Middle Eastern eyes. Indeed, Mr. Bush’s refusal to engage in direct mediation in the manner of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and his insistence that comprehensive talks be broken down into bilateral and multilateral tracks, à la Madrid, further diminishes any hope for breakthrough.

Yet, in spite of its glaring handicaps, Annapolis must be deemed a triumph — not of peacemaking, paradoxically, but of girding the region for conflict. Though no doubt sincere in their desire to neutralize the Arab-Israeli irritant in Middle Eastern affairs, participants in the conference were above all motivated by their fear of a radical and relentlessly aggressive Iran. This fear has deepened with the success of the Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza, as well as the expansion of Iranian influence westward into the Iraqi vacuum.

The inability of the international community either to entice or deter the Iranians from producing nuclear weapons adds urgency to the need to unite those countries threatened by those bombs. That, and not American fiat, brought 49 states and organizations to Annapolis; that, and not the yearning for an Israeli-Arab accord, impelled a Saudi prince to sit alongside an Israeli prime minister.

Not unexpectedly, the Iranians reacted ferociously to Annapolis. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pronounced it a “failure” and the government-controlled press promised to “bring down Islamic wrath” on its participants. But such rage merely betrays the anxiety induced by Annapolis in Tehran. For the first time a coalition of Western and modern Arab leaders has coalesced and declared its commitment to resist “extremism” in the Middle East — a well-known euphemism for Iran.

What’s more, new efforts have begun to confront Iran outside of the United Nations and woo Syria from Iran’s orbit. An international conference may not be the ideal formula for attaining Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it can provide a powerful forum for expressing solidarity in the face of war.

Situated on the Naval Academy campus, not far from where the meeting’s delegates gathered, is America’s oldest war monument. Carved out of marble in 1806, the 30-foot-high column commemorates the Navy’s victory in America’s first war in the Middle East — against the pirates of Tripoli.

Today, 200 years later, the United States is again taking the lead in rallying opposition to another rogue state in the region. The Barbary Wars, as they were called, lasted a long time, flaring off and on from 1801 to 1815. The struggle against Iran inaugurated at Annapolis is only just beginning.

Michael B. Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and a visiting senior lecturer in Middle East history at Yale, is the author of “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.”