Preview of the Annapolis Middle East Peace Talks

November 21, 2007

President Bush will host a meeting of international leaders to help revive the Arab-Israeli peace process. Research fellow Tamara Wittes says the talks are critical for the future of the entire Middle East.

“This summit is going to mark a sort of symbolic end to seven years where there were really no substantive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. And it will also mark a new era in peacemaking in the sense that you’ll see a wide array of international actors including a lot of Arab states stepping up to support this Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And, the Arab states declaring their willingness to normalize the relationship with Israel, if it can make peace with its neighbors. So, that new element, Arab states supporting the process, I think, is going to be really crucial, to its long-term success.

“This summit is not really going to take up the substantive issues between Israel and the Palestinians in getting to a final status agreement. The important thing will be what happens the day after Annapolis. [Israeli] Prime Minister Olmert has promised that negations will be continuous, serious and intensive. The Palestinians would like to see a deadline attached to those talks so that they can have some hope for substantive achievement to show to their people. But right now, the two sides still have large gaps between them, both on these core issues like Jerusalem, and refugees, and settlements and on more immediate concerns on the ground relating to security that’s going to make to make the progress of these talks very difficult.

“The United States is really coming back around after a long absence from Arab-Israeli peacemaking because of changes on the ground in the region. The threat posed by Iran and some of its radical allies around the Middle East to U.S. interests in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. This is driving the U.S. and a number of Arab states as well to come together around a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a way of providing an alternative to the radical vision, the vision of resistance and violence that Iran and its allies are putting forward.

“This is a real challenge for [Palestinian] President Abbas. He knows if doesn’t make progress in peace talks with Israel, if he can’t give his residents the hope for Palestinian statehood, then Hamas and the other rejectionists who are opposed to peace with Israel will probably be able to take over Palestinian politics. So this is in a way his bid for survival.

“Hamas is not going to stand idly by while Israel and the Palestinians launch this new round of negotiations. I expect that they will intervene as best they can using violence to try and stop the talks or put a lot of pressure on both sides to stop the talks. The real challenge here will be whether the international actors that are supporting these negotiations will be able to successfully contain Hamas; cut off its funding, isolate it internationally so that it won’t be able to be effective in this role.

“The other key piece, of course, is whether the Palestinian Authority will be able to build up its security capacity to prevent Hamas from carrying out attacks either inside Israel or in the West Bank. Right now, the Palestinian Authority  just doesn’t have the ability to do that and it will require a lot of funding from the international community, a lot of training and a lot of support from Israel as well, on the ground, if the Palestinians are going to be effective fighting this kind of terrorism.

“The Arab states that have been invited are all members of what’s called the Arab League Follow-up Committee and this was a group of states setup to follow up on the Arab-Israeli peace initiative that was made toward Israel in 2002. So all of them have been in invited at the Foreign Minister level and they have received invitations signed by Secretary of State Rice. The pressure is on for them to show up at that level, if they do not, I think it will be interpreted as a failure for the Administration.

“I think the United States and all the other parties, frankly, who are going to be in Annapolis, are coming together for this summit not so much because they have great hopes for the success of a peace process but rather because the process itself has some value for them. They’re coming together because they fear that in the absence of an active Israeli-Palestinian peace process more radical voices are going to gain traction across the region. Voices led by Iran, by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and by organizations like Hamas. So, this peace process is designed to serve other ends. It’s a bulwark against this radical alliance in the region. If it works as a bulwark against this radicalism that will have positive benefits for the U.S. in Iraq and its confrontation with Iran on other issues as well.

“The question of how committed President Bush is to this new peace initiative has been an open question all year. He is stepping up to the plate to support this meeting.  I doubt, however, that we’re going to see him deeply involved in Israeli-Palestinian mediation after the meeting is over.”