Annapolis is just the first step

Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, was a former U.S. Middle East negotiator. He is the author of the forthcoming "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

If Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice want to set the Annapolis conference to music, I have a suggestion: the chorus from Sugarland’s latest country music hit: “Everybody’s dreamin’ big, but everybody’s just gettin’ by.”

The meeting in Annapolis, Md., slated to get underway Tuesday, is shaping up to be a case study of what happens when you call a peace conference with high expectations and then reality intrudes. Yet Annapolis can still be consequential -- if Israelis and Palestinians take bigger risks and the Bush administration takes a more forceful, hands-on role than we’ve seen to date.

I’ve planned my fair share of negotiations, conferences and summits, so I know a little about success in this department and quite a lot about failure. Such events are usually good for two things: opening a process, as in Madrid (October 1991), which launched unprecedented Arab-Israeli negotiations; or closing a process, as was the case with the Wye River Summit (October 1998), which produced an agreement on security for Israelis and gradual withdrawal from the West Bank for Palestinians.

Annapolis initially was intended to produce something in between: a set of understandings about how the core issues -- Jerusalem, borders and refugees -- would be resolved. Quickly confronted with big gaps and tight political constraints, however, the United States had to downsize its ambitions.

Still, there is opportunity. The Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president have demonstrated that they like each other and can do business together. Few people know that, in the last three months, Olmert and Abbas have had more serious discussions about the core issues than any -- repeat, any -- Israeli prime minister and Palestinian Authority president have ever had. Throw in Rice’s determination and the enormous amount of work previously accomplished on the core issues, and they just might get somewhere.


True success, however, will depend on the weeks or months of negotiations that will follow Annapolis. Israelis and Palestinians will have tough choices to make, but so will the U.S. in its role as facilitator and broker.

* Getting it in writing: Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn once quipped that an oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. The same is true for peace talks. For now, the Israelis and Palestinians should be encouraged to exchange ideas and concepts and to own their negotiating process. But if gaps remain, and they surely will, the U.S. will have to do more than offer up suggestions. It must help the two sides draft a formal written agreement.

Even if talks don’t reach that stage, the administration should think seriously about putting out its own ideas on the core issues in 2008 -- much as President Clinton did in December 2000 -- to reaffirm the desirability and feasibility of reaching a final agreement.

* Driving the road map: The 1993 Oslo accords failed partly because neither Israelis nor Palestinians could fulfill their obligations. At Annapolis, the parties may agree (yet again) to implement phase one of the 2003 “road map for peace,” including freezing settlements, stopping terrorism, seizing weapons and facilitating freedom of movement and economic activity for Palestinians. If so, the U.S. needs to monitor each side’s progress and be prepared to get critical and to impose costs if either side falls short. Only the U.S., using toughness and reassurance, can drive this process.

* Recognizing Palestinian realities: No Israeli-Palestinian peace can be implemented without a unified Palestinian polity that controls all the guns. Why would Israel make nation-threatening concessions to a Palestinian partner that doesn’t? The big question is when and under what terms the Palestinians will reconcile. No matter how they do it, the U.S. needs to stay out of the way.

The U.S. should focus on empowering Abbas by brokering a final agreement and improving the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and, if possible, Gaza. Then Abbas can negotiate with Hamas from a position of strength.

Abbas’ goal is to draw Hamas’ pragmatists (if there are any) into the political process minus their guns and extremism. Whether this will work is unclear, but it’s worth a try. If the U.S. doesn’t want to engage Hamas, fine. But it shouldn’t interfere with the efforts of those who do, including Arab and European nations that want to improve the economic situation in Gaza.

President Bush inherited a worse hand on Arab-Israeli peacemaking than any of his predecessors. Annapolis offers an opportunity to turn that around. It will take effort and resolve, but by the end of his term, the president could leave behind a serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, even an agreement. He may not see a Palestinian state on his watch, but he may be responsible for preserving the option of a two-state solution. And that, considering how far Arab-Israeli peacemaking has sunk, would be a lot better than “just gettin’ by.”