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Bush looks on as Olmert (left) shakes hands with Abbas at the summit

All or nothing

Israel | Israelis and Palestinians leave Annapolis pledged to negotiate but without making needed compromises

Issue: "Our pork," Dec. 8, 2007

Chick & Ruth's Delly in Annapolis, Md., has a daily tradition. At 8:30 a.m. on weekdays (9:30 on Saturdays and Sundays), eating and serving cease so that all in the Main Street restaurant may stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

On Nov. 27, owner Ted Levitt was running a little behind. Annapolis was crawling with hundreds of journalists in town for the landmark Mideast conference, and two were filming Levitt behind his deli counter. Not far away delegates from 43 nations and about a dozen international organizations converged-under massive security-on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy to chart a course the Bush administration hopes will end in a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side.

But for a moment world affairs had to wait, as Levitt grabbed his microphone, doffed a black driving cap, faced a hanging American flag with hand over heart. On cue everyone sprang to their feet and followed along.

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Levitt's morning ritual began in 1989. Visiting his son's school one morning, Levitt left annoyed that students did not start the day with the pledge. The same day, four of his regulars said they were steamed, too, over a flag-burning story in the paper. Saying the pledge every day at his deli, said Levitt, who is Jewish, is just "the right thing to do."

Clear-headed, straightforward perseverance of "the right thing to do" has hardly been the hallmark of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. After seven years of stalled peace talks and months of frantic diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designed the Annapolis conference as a launching pad for future talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Their goal now is to hash out the details of the U.S.-sponsored "workplan" agreed upon in Annapolis during a series of biweekly sessions set to begin on Dec 12.

The coming months will be the true test of the Annapolis meeting's success as both sides have far to go in bridging the gaps that have plagued the region for six decades and choked one peace accord after another. Suggested compromises on just one of the major issues are enough to launch a firestorm of protest on both sides. Analysts seem to agree only on one thing: The workplan's failure could be disastrous for the region, but if diplomats apply the lessons of past failures in the journey ahead, they might bring some measure of peace.

Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli diplomat and founder of the Israeli-based Reut Institute, says the Israeli public "has come to terms with the fact that in order to preserve the state of Israel as we know it, we will have to compromise areas that are the cradle of Hebrew civilization, primarily the West Bank."

But while Olmert-whose popularity has plummeted since the 2006 war in Lebanon-exchanged pleasantries in Annapolis, 20,000 Israelis protested at the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism and within the boundaries of East Jerusalem, the city Palestinians want to claim for their capital.

Abbas-like Olmert lacking in political strength since Hamas took over Gaza last summer-left little room for concessions during his speech in Annapolis, emphasizing the importance of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, the right of return for refugees, and the dismantlement of all Israeli settlements. Even with this familiar list, he was denounced as a sellout when thousands of Palestinian protesters flooded the streets of Gaza and the West Bank.

Rafi Dajani, executive director for the American Task Force on Palestine, told WORLD that the Palestinians have already made their compromise: "For Palestinians, the main concession that they have made, their historical compromise, is the fact that they are accepting a Palestinian state on 22 percent, or maybe a little less, than mandatory Palestine."

That leaves a lot of ground to cover before the end of President Bush's term in January 2009, the suggested timeline for the plan, and Grinstein says the repercussions of a failed political process could be "very, very severe," emboldening the radical factions in the region and leading to a Hamas takeover of the West Bank.

"The Bush administration 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," Grinstein said.

However, several scenarios are different this time around, and those changes could tip the scale in favor of a lasting peace deal.

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