Practical change will have to suffice

The Annapolis conference is convening tomorrow with no agreement in sight except to meet. The big question is: what now? The United States has succeeded, not only in convening the conference at the level of a summit, but also in drawing a crowd. More than 40 countries will send representatives, among them the Saudi foreign minister. That by itself is an achievement after seven years of a complete vacuum in diplomatic efforts on the Middle East peace process.

While the parties failed to reach agreement on a political statement with substantial content, they are expected to agree on a statement committing to negotiations proceeding from Annapolis. This is carefully calculated–to end this conference without a clear agreement would be a dangerous indication of failure opening the way to violence. At the same time, open-ended negotiations such as we have seen in the past will open the process to manipulation by the stronger party.

It is possible, however, that this initiative (which at face value seeks progress in peacefully ending the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis) is structured simply to serve internal political needs and requirements in Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah. While all three leaderships will benefit from resuming a political process, all will be hurt by substantial negotiations and serious attempts to bridge political differences on weighty issues such as the status of Palestinian refugees, the city of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the borders of Israel and a future Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already been publicly threatened by his coalition partners, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was told frankly that delving into these final status issues would lead to an Israeli government crisis. For Olmert, therefore, a political process is useful–while substantial negotiations are dangerous.

US President George Bush, himself surrounded by ideologically-motivated "friends of Israel", will be perceived as a peacemaker by initiating and sustaining a process, but will face internal opposition if he tries to nudge Israel to stop the construction of settlements, for example, or opens up discussion about refugees and Jerusalem.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ situation is no different. He can negotiate, but he cannot compromise because his loud opposition is gambling that he will be flexible in negotiations, and is waiting to pounce. Any compromises will render Hamas’ rhetoric correct in the eyes of the public, and further weaken the position of the peace camp, which will be painted as "selling out" Palestinian positions supported by international law and UN Security Council resolutions. Abbas in Annapolis risks being compared with Yassar Arafat at Camp David, who came home uncompromised to a hero’s welcome.

In other words, all three leaderships have a strong interest in a process, but can afford neither its failure nor its success. This might bring us back to a status quo reminiscent of 2002, where the parties waver between success and failure. The difference now is that both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships are also too weak to sustain themselves in such conditions. The third party, the Bush government, is already a lame duck due to approaching elections.

The only reasonable outcome of this confluence of conditions is to concentrate on practical aspects, showing the public that this process–while not one for achieving a final agreement –can at least produce results in improving the economy and enhancing security. A sustained negotiations process that keeps hope alive, on the one hand, while on the other hand preventing the continuous consolidation of the occupation and improving economic and security conditions, will maintain the survival of both Israeli and Palestinian peace camps, likely reversing the process of political deterioration and radicalization.

In other words, the only way to avoid the outright failure of Annapolis, which could be very dangerous for both the cause of peace and the survival of the existing leaderships, is through a package of ongoing and sustained negotiations, the cessation of settlement expansion, and a systematic improvement in the economy of the Palestinian territories as well as security and law and order for both sides. From this high ground, Abbas might be able to resume dialogue with the relatively moderate wing of Hamas in Gaza, which would lead either to rejoining the authority currently divided between the West Bank and Gaza, or encourage debate and splits inside Hamas.