After a year long effort Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has succeeded in getting Israelis and Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table. Rice and her boss, President Bush, will host next week's peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland at the U.S. Naval Academy. So, after relegating the Middle East peace process to the back burner for more than six years, the Bush administration, with just over a year remaining in office, is making an attempt to go for the brass ring - a peace deal resulting in a Palestinian state and security for Israel.
But wait, there's more. To formally launch the stretch run, not only will Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas be at the table, but they will have lots of company. The Saudis and the Syrians and other representatives from the Arab League are expected. Ditto the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Toss in representatives from the G-8 industrialized nations and the Quartet. And the Quartet's Special Envoy Tony Blair. Sprinkle in high officials from such interested parties as the European Union, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Slovenia and Senegal - nearly fifty countries and organizations in all!
Why such a crowd? The simple answer is that it gives an international stamp of approval up front to what Mr. Bush and Rice are trying to do. It is also correcting one of the big mistakes made by the Clinton administration in the run up to Camp David in 2000.
"This time, we tried to have Arab engagement and involvement all along the way," Rice told reporters at the State Department.
By getting Arab states and countries with large Muslim populations to signal their support for such a process, the weak Palestinian government led by Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) knows it has some outside support, something the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat could not count on when he went to Camp David.
There is also the economic component to this very complex puzzle. The creation of a state called Palestine will cost billions and somebody has to pay for it - thus the presence of the oil rich Gulf Arab states and Japan as well as the World Bank and IMF sitting in as observers. A separate donor's conference to pledge money for this will be held in Paris in December.
As Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel put it, "what Annapolis is going to do is launch a process and give it international blessing."
Rice, Olmert and Blair each signaled the role Annapolis would play when they spoke to the Saban Center Forum in Jerusalem several weeks ago. Although he didn't mention such difficult problems as the status of Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees by name, Olmert acknowledged all of the so-called core issues would be on the table when the two parties sat down at the negotiating table after Annapolis. While Mr. Bush and his team obviously hope a deal can be reached by the end of this administration, Olmert qualified that objective with a key word.
"If we and the Palestinians act with determination, there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments 'perhaps' even before the end of President Bush's term in office."
Everyone hedges their bets when the negotiating gets serious.
As much as Annapolis has been pitched publicly as a way to launch Israelis and Palestinians on the path to a peace agreement, there is another aspect to the conference which may be of even greater importance to some of those in attendance.
Martin Indyk says this is also a meeting for which the subtext is gathering and uniting the opposition to Iran. "It's the Sunni Arabs, the Israelis and the Americans together against Iran." Indyk's colleague, Bruce Riedel, a former senior official at the CIA and NSC, says the Iranians might well try to disrupt either the meeting or progress after the meeting by getting their agents, either Islamic Jihad or al-Qaeda, to launch a big terrorist attack.
Just getting Annapolis launched is, in fact, a big accomplishment for the Bush team. And if the establishment of a Palestinian state and a secure Israel is the goal, the steps following next week's meeting are full of unknowns.
"The core question is this, does Annapolis have legs?" says Aaron David Miller, who worked on earlier negotiating rounds for more than two decades. "The true test of this will not come in Annapolis. Annapolis is not a negotiating summit. It's more than a photo op but it is not a negotiating summit."
Next Wednesday, the day after Annapolis, Israelis and Palestinians will return to Washington for talks at the White House. Mr. Bush and his Secretary of State will be giving the two leaders a bit of a pep talk along the lines of 'OK, we've gotten this rolling. Now it's up to you to make really hard decisions. Let us know how and when we can help...'
How Washington acts in the coming weeks and months is a serious issue as it relates to a successful outcome. "It means pushing Arabs and Israelis farther than they thought they would go in the beginning and that requires heavy lifting which not every president and secretary of state is prepared to do, even so late in a term," says Miller.
In Middle East peacemaking it goes without saying there is much work to do and no final decisions will be made by the principle actors until after deadlines have been passed. While success is an uphill struggle for all involved, so is the alternative, says former negotiator Indyk: "...let's stress that the fear of failure is an amazing motivator for everybody concerned. Because failure means the common enemy gets - whether its Hamas or whether its Iran - for the Saudi-led Arab stakeholders as much as for Israel, as much as for Mahmoud Abbas,...failure puts them all in a bad place."
With that admonition, let the talks begin.