Politics & Policy

Praying for Handshakes and Empty Words

There is scant reason to think that the conference now convening in Annapolis will help resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. There is good reason to think it will make matters worse. And there is a question: Why did the Bush administration insist on peace talks when the best possible outcome was no outcome at all?

Rarely have such high hopes been revised downward so quickly — even by the standard of State Department initiatives. The thinking behind Annapolis was this: Sunni governments throughout the Middle East are scared to death of Iran. They know that Israel is not the real threat to their security. But the populations they rule are perpetually inflamed by perceived injustices dealt to Palestinians, and look askance upon Arab cooperation with Satans in Jerusalem and Washington. It’s easier, then, for Sunni states to help us counter the Iranian threat if we are “engaged” in advancing the cause of Palestinian statehood.

What was to be special about Annapolis was that the principals — the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas — would agree in advance to a joint “declaration of principles” addressing the substantive issues of their dispute. This statement would include, among other things, a commitment to the formation of a Palestinian state by the end of President Bush’s term.

What happened in practice was that the Israelis and the Palestinians failed to agree on anything. This was entirely predictable. Palestinian negotiators have consistently refused to budge on the “right of return” — that is, the putative right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes within Israel. In practice, a “right of return” would mean the death of Israel as a Jewish state. This is something that no Israeli government will accept. It is also something that no Israeli government should be asked to accept, given that the U.N. resolution which partitioned the British Mandate mentions the creation of a “Jewish state” not once but dozens of times.

Leave that aside though. Precisely how did the State Department expect Olmert and Abbas to make painful concessions when each is fighting for political survival? Olmert is clouded by a corruption scandal and by accusations that he mishandled Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah. His approval ratings have just barely risen above the single digits. The parties on which his governing coalition depends are unwilling to countenance any major concessions to the Palestinians — a surrender of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, for example, or an Israeli retreat to its 1967 borders. “Land for peace” may yet have a future, but not under a government in its death throes.

Olmert is, however, a picture of health compared with the Abbas. In June, Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas’s Fatah party, and its influence is growing in the West Bank as well. It is doubtful that Abbas speaks for a majority of Palestinians, who after all gave Hamas a parliamentary majority in their January 2006 elections. Hamas’s position on the character of the Israeli state is that the Jews should be driven into the sea. It will use Annapolis as an occasion to cast Abbas as a traitor to his people, and to present itself as the true representative of Palestinian aspirations. It is holding its own, anti-Annapolis conference in Gaza this week, and at least one Hamas leader has spoken of launching a third intifada. Whether or not that happens, there is a significant possibility that Abbas’s participation at Annapolis will only undercut his authority. Israel cannot grant the concessions that his restive population demands, and he will very likely take the blame.

The Sunni governments invited to participate know all this, which is why several of them spent the past weeks playing hard-to-get. Saudi Arabia agreed to send its foreign minister only at the last minute, and only after pleas from Abbas and arm-twisting from the White House. It probably seeks nothing so much as to appease its Washington allies while a critical arms-sale package is before Congress. Syria agreed to come at the last minute too, but only in order to rebroadcast old gripes about the Golan Heights.

Barring that day of miracles in which the lion lies down with the lamb, what we must hope is that Annapolis will produce nothing more than handshakes and empty words. If so, it will be merely silly. If it gives us instead a weakened Abbas, an empowered Hamas, renewed anger among Arab masses over Palestinian grievances, and increased sympathy for the anti-Israeli, anti-American worldview that prevails from Tehran to Damascus to southern Lebanon to the West Bank to Gaza, then silliness will seem a luxury.


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