Expectations could hardly be lower for an American-sponsored peace conference scheduled to open Monday night in Annapolis, Md. A longtime Israeli diplomat recently lamented that Israeli leaders seemed to want a "Seinfeld summit" -- a summit about nothing -- while Palestinians expected too much. Nevertheless, the Bush administration's persistence in twisting Arab arms resulted in Friday's news that the Arab League and Syrian foreign ministers were likely to attend. Syria's participation had been contingent on discussing the status of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, a negotiation Washington had previously opposed. The high-level international involvement increases the pressure on Israel, but also on the Palestinians, to make the concessions needed to restart the moribund peace process.
Last Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and freeze the construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- though not the expansion of existing ones. Such "confidence-building measures" have been sought by the Palestinians and by American diplomats as a way to ensure success at Annapolis. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must engage in some confidence building of his own, by proving that he's serious about preventing attacks on Israelis from territory under his control. By design or coincidence, Abbas' security forces joined the Israeli army Monday in rounding up Hamas guerrillas in the West Bank.
Hamas, the rejectionist Islamic party that won parliamentary elections in 2006, has broken with Abbas' Fatah movement and has established a regime in the Gaza Strip. To neutralize Hamas' influence, Abbas would have to convince Palestinians in both places that he can deliver an independent state, one that wouldn't be checker-boarded by Israeli settlements and would have its capital in East Jerusalem. It's not clear that he could strike a separate peace without Gaza, and certainly not unless Olmert strengthens Abbas' position by freezing the expansion of existing Jewish settlements.
Like his predecessors, Olmert must reckon with the political power of settlers for whom the West Bank is part of a divinely mandated Greater Israel. But the sooner the settlers are disabused of that vision, the better for the two-state solution. Likewise, Abbas must accept that there will be no mass "return" by descendants of displaced Palestinians to what is now Israel. But he will find it easier to demand realism from his countrymen if the other side is also open to accommodation. It was the lack of mutual trust as much as disputed lines on a map that doomed a blueprint for peace pressed by President Clinton in 2000.
It's unrealistic to expect Annapolis to be the scene of the "final status" agreement that eluded the parties at Camp David seven years ago. But the meeting must produce an agenda for future talks, not just platitudes about the importance of negotiations. Otherwise it won't be worth the time of the parties, the neighboring countries or the United States. Fixated on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration paid insufficient attention to the Arab-Israeli situation until the Iraq Study Group warned that the U.S. "cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability." If Annapolis is to mark the beginning of a more assertive U.S. role, it can't be a summit about nothing.