Ted Levitt, the owner of Chick & Judy's Delly in downtown Annapolis, speaks for many Americans when he says of the world leaders who gathered just a few blocks away today: "They're sitting down. I don't think anything's gonna be solved whatsoever, but they're talking."
The conference at the U.S. Naval Academy has been greeted by heavy skepticism, with many questioning its timing and prospects for success, especially given the weaknesses of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose leadership is challenged by the militant Hamas movement. Nevertheless the principals in attendance have agreed under the U.S.-sponsored "workplan," to begin talks on the most contentious issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on Dec. 12.
Abbas and Olmert will hold private biweekly talks throughout the process, monitored by the United States. The two are scheduled to meet tomorrow at the White House with President Bush as a followup to the first Middle East peace conference in seven years, a one-day event that concludes today with remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It included delegates from 43 countries, 10 international organizations, and the Vatican. Diplomats from countries as far removed from the region as Indonesia and as tangential to its volatile equation as Mexico participated.
Reading from a statement prepared by each side, President Bush said, "We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008."
The Bush administration has spent frantic months cajoling allies and enemies toward Annapolis but experts continue to doubt either Israelis or Palestinians truly are ready to deal. And the possible repercussions of a failed political process, according to Gidi Grinstein, former Israeli diplomat and founder of the Israel-based Reut Institute, "are very, very severe." The Bush administration, Grinstein told WORLD yesterday, "was probably too quick to embrace a political strategy to reach an agreement that would be detailed, specific and comprehensive. In a sense, they are pursuing an all-or-nothing political strategy against an extremely complicated and challenging reality."
The Israeli public, notes Grinstein, has come to terms with recognition of a Palestinian state that includes Gaza and the West Bank. But Palestinian leadership has grown increasingly militant, favoring groups like Hamas that prefer not a two-state solution but one state-and that means the elimination of Israel.
"The possible repercussions of a failed political process are very, very severe," said Grinstein. Failure under the "workplan" could further reduce the moderate element of Palestinian leadership represented by president Abbas and lead to the take over of the West Bank by Hamas, which now controls Gaza.
Still under discussion are secondary agreements that could jumpstart an Israeli-Palestinian solution. Chief among them: coming to terms with Syria over the disputed Golan Heights and with Syria and Lebanon following Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, where there is more reason and opportunity to reach accord.