The international diplomatic spotlight has left the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and moved on. Having finished their private meetings with President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have left Washington to return home. So what was accomplished on the banks of the Severn River?
Clearly, Mr. Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice did manage to pull off a Middle East peace conference, or at least a mini version of one. They got more than 40 countries to participate including a dozen Arab states. Many of those, like Saudi Arabia and Syria, do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Even if most of the Arab officials wouldn't shake hands with the Israeli delegation, everyone sat and had lunch together and no one walked out on Olmert's speech.
Putting the international community's stamp of approval on launching what was described as "vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations" between Israelis and Palestinians on the core issues was a big plus for the Bush administration although skepticism abounds on the question of whether it will achieve its intended aim.
There have been enough Middle East gatherings in recent years that the speechwriters now seem to be writing variations on previously used lines. Abbas said, "Time has come for the cycle of blood, violence and occupation to come to an end." That sounded like an echo perhaps of the words of the late Yitzhak Rabin in 1993: "We say to you today in a loud and clear voice: enough blood and tears, enough."
And was Olmert looking to paraphrase Abba Eban, a former Israeli foreign minister known for his quip that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity"? "The time has come for you as well," he said when addressing a section of his remarks to the Arab officials in attendance. "You cannot continue to stand by indefinitely and watch the peace train go by."
But the two leaders also were careful to send what appeared to be heartfelt sentiments to each other's constituency. To Palestinians Olmert said, "We are not indifferent to this suffering. We are not oblivious to the tragedies you have experienced."
For his part, Abbas addressed Israelis with, "You are our neighbors on this small land. It is a common interest for us and for you. Peace and freedom is a right for us as much as peace and security is a right for you and for us."
All that is well and good but talk, as the saying goes, is cheap. Even if the words were kinder and gentler, the real question is whether or not Annapolis will lead to anything concrete when it comes to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Although the meeting was meant only to launch a supposedly intensified process which would conclude in a peace agreement to achieve a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 - just as Mr. Bush leaves office - some of the signals indicated in the joint statement reflected the inability of the parties to make any significant progress even on a work plan going forward. They did agree to stick to their respective obligations under the 2003 road map, and they also agreed to have the U.S. act as sole judge when it comes to monitoring and judging either side's compliance with road map obligations and with those which might be contained in a future peace treaty. In two weeks time Israelis and Palestinians will start to get down to the real nitty gritty on final status issues like the return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Even if President Bush and his Secretary of State left Annapolis thinking they had accomplished a lot others were less than impressed.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a self-described moderate in Palestinian politics said, "Many people feel we are not talking about building a state, but building a government." He called the joint statement "too little, too late" and, in a telephone interview and confessed to a "certain level of disappointment."
Barghouti was in Washington during the talks but he was not a member of the official Palestinian delegation.
Aaron David Miller, who worked on Middle East negotiations for Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, said he "doesn't doubt Olmert's and Abbas' intentions but they don't have the capacity" to make this work, a reference to their weak political standing at home. As for the Bush administration's goal of getting this done in just over a year's time, Miller says, "The real problem and its something this administration has to get a grip on is they can't be tempted by the ticking clock."
Going for a peace treaty in such a short period of time is, in effect, biting off more than the parties can chew. Better to have aimed at a more modest goal like agreeing on a framework for an agreement.
Can Mr. Bush broker a deal? Yes, but as he put it in his speech to the gathering in Annapolis: "I give you my personal commitment to support your work…"
In other words, it's up to you to make the really hard decisions. Will Abbas be able to convince a majority of Palestinians that they have to give up the right of Palestinian refugees everywhere to one day return to the lands they now call their own? Will Olmert be able to convince a majority of Israelis that their capital, Jerusalem, has to be divided in some way to make room for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a state called Palestine? Does anyone think Palestinian security forces can assure the security of a border between the two states? And no one knows how Hamas' control of Gaza will affect the negotiations. Will they continue to be the spoiler they are now, or will they see a political future for themselves and somehow politically morph into becoming part of the solution?
Frankly, the odds are very, very long that a deal can be done. But Mr. Bush and Dr. Rice are optimists and they know if they can pull this off much of their legacy, now consumed by their policy on Iraq, can be tuned into something positive.
Curiously, for all the talk about an all out push for peace in the next year, the first post-Annapolis move announced by Rice was the appointment of retired Marine Corps commander Gen. James Jones as special envoy for middle east security. Jones, a talented soldier-diplomat, will serve, however, only part time in this role while he continues his duties for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. With security being the linchpin to any peace treaty and with so little time left to cut a deal, one wonders why someone wouldn't be needed on a full time basis.
Brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians is not the same thing as solving the Rubik's cube puzzle where the goal is to end up having each side of the cube be one color. Everyone can see and agree that is the moment when the puzzle is solved. In the Middle East nothing is that clear cut.
Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, speaking to reporters before Annapolis, said "every man, woman and child, whether in Israel or the Arab world, knows what the peace is going to be like....generally, the settlement is known where it's going to be at. But the problem is getting there, getting everybody to agree to the same thing at the same time. That's the problem with peace."