Monday, November 26, 2007

Udi & Mudi's Excellent Adventure

I'm not sure if Mahmoud Abbas has the nickname "Mudi," but it made for a nice alliterative blog entry title.

So now comes the long-anticipated Annapolis peace gathering (downgraded from "conference" a few weeks ago). With the Arab League now formally on board, and with delegations coming at the very least at the Foreign Minister level (except for the Israelis and Palestinians, who are being represented by weak heads-of-state, and the Syrians, who are coming with merely a deputy FM), the stage is set for a one-day gathering, where it is hoped that the Israelis and Palestinians will issue a joint statement ensuring the commencement of a negotiating modality for 2008. Even that limited outcome is in doubt, with the probability of no more than separate statements -- either result will mean hard slogging for the year to come. If a joint statement can be reached, call the gathering a stunning -- if incremental -- victory.

It is hard to imagine that this gathering will produce any breakthroughs, unless the American team puts forth some compromise "creative ideas" to broach the gulf which separates the two sides. The Israelis are arriving with a slightly split delegation, with Ehud Olmert ("Udi") issuing rosy proclamations of settling the problem by the end of 2008, and with FM Tzipi Livny and Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressing a less enthusiastic approach. The Arab League delegates come armed with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 (a relative non-starter), and the Americans cling to the dilapidated Quartet Roadmap of 2003. The West Bank Palestinians arrive asking for a discussion of "the core issues" (Settlements, Jerusalem, and Right of Return), and the Israelis come to the table with no specific proposal but rather with a list of prior unfulfilled demands concerning their security, and simultaneously crippled by a pending decision from the Israeli police over ongoing corruption investigations against Olmert. Hamas in Gaza is not invited and so issues defiant rhetoric (and short range rockets upon Israel), necessitating a security clampdown in Jerusalem and the occupied territories.

Somewhat reminiscent of the 3-day Madrid peace conference sponsored jointly by US and Russia back in September, 1991, the Annapolis gathering cannot possibly result in a breakthrough, but it can conceivably lay the groundwork for future diplomacy, and for further under-the-radar improvements in Israel's diplomatic standing with moderate Arab Gulf states. After all, the Madrid conference (after the Israeli team was shuffled from Likud to Labor) indirectly led to an almost successful resolution of the Syrian-Israeli dispute, and to the ultimately failed Oslo peace process.

In the case of Annapolis, we must hope for a similar reshuffling of the deck. Olmert and West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas are both sitting upon shaky seats, and neither can deliver their constituency for broad compromises. The incompetence of the Bush administration in the Middle East is now legendary. Last week's Economist hopes that Mr. Bush will issue a kind of clarion call which will indicate a willingness to break the logjam; but domestic politics (in the form of presidential primaries just 6 weeks away) plays a factor in just how far Mr. Bush can go without crippling a tough-as-nails Republican front runner.

So with an important meeting of donor countries set for December, the Palestinians must appear willing (and they are) to sit and listen. The Israelis for their part can hardly ignore an invitation issued by Washington, though they can subsequently resist pressure from a crippled lame-duck American administration. The modest surprise in all this is the participation of the Arab League states. My bet? Look years from now at this gathering in Maryland as a catalyst for Syrian-Israeli negotiations -- but do not expect a similar retrospective result for the Israeli-Palestinian track. Too many variables -- not the least the fractured nature of the respective Israeli, Palestinian and American ruling elites -- make true progress possible. Until the rift between Gaza and the West Bank is resolved one way or the other (and no doubt, the Annapolis meeting is designed to strengthen the West Bankers over the Gazans), and until new leaders are installed in Israel and the US, the chances for resolution in 2008 seem dim indeed.

Update, Nov. 29: Nothing truly important happened. We will have to credit a victory to George Bush and Condoleeza Rice for actually producing a joint statement from the Israelis and Palestinians (though Abbas refused to sign on until only 8 minutes before the triumvirate went onstage before cameras). Other than that, my pre-summit predictions penned above still stands.