Annapolis Practicalities—and Visuals: What Was Achieved? Why Did Syria Show Up?

At this time, the morning after the American-sponsored peace conference, it is still early to assess the full impact and meaning of the grand event at Annapolis—beyond the basic success of a meeting that was well-attended and came off without a resounding walkout or crisis. The full details of the dramatic last-minute decision by the Palestinian side to sign onto the joint declaration are yet to be divulged, and some of the implementation mechanisms are still under discussion. What can be said to have been achieved—in terms of the three interrelated Palestinian components—is significant, but certainly far from the “total sellout” that apocalyptic voices on the right had predicted (which would have translated into extensive Israeli concessions that equally anxious voices on the left had hoped for):

  • The preparatory talks, despite the myriad last-minute problems that almost scuttled the quest for a joint statement, did provide—as President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have insisted all along—for an agreed framework of negotiations on the Permanent Status (“Stage III” of the Road Map) issues, including all “core issues”: borders and settlements, the refugees, Jerusalem, and, as President Mahmoud Abbas added, security and water. The decisive impetus, and the sense of urgency, came from the U.S. side; and given the difficulty in bringing the two sides to agree on a form of words, beyond the most basic generalities of the joint declaration, it fell to the Americans to outline the vision for the future. In so doing, Bush offered an American commitment to a steady and consistent effort, which is supposed to be concluded this year (which is what Abbas wanted); but did not spell out specific solutions, and thus left the Palestinians with distinctly less than what they had come for. In itself, however, the direct leap to the last stage, abandoning the “Palestinian State with Provisional Borders” (Stage II of the Road Map), was a major Israeli and American concession. Still, major gaps remain as to the terms of reference for these negotiations, once they get serious; and the speeches by the three leaders brought their disagreements on these issues into the open. Bush and Olmert did promise that the occupation would end, or, as Olmert put it, “Realities which have prevailed since 1967 are bound to change”; but neither of them mentioned Jerusalem nor discussed future borders. Abbas, on the other hand, was detailed in his demands for a return to the 1967 lines and East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital “in which the freedom of religion would be honored,” i.e., with the holy places under Palestinian sovereignty. This will prove to be a highly sensitive question when the negotiations do begin.
  • Of great importance are not only the substantive issues but the procedures and the circumstances under which the Permanent Status Agreement could be gradually implemented, once it is achieved (if ever). This, again, raised tensions. Will Israel be allowed to judge whether Palestinian compliance on the key security matters has been satisfactory? Or will this call be made by an American “umpire,” as the agreed procedure seems to suggest? What may seem a technicality—or might require Israelis to put their trust in the goodwill and friendship of American officials (who would also be monitoring Israeli compliance with the settlement freeze and the removal of unauthorized outposts). But these benign arrangements could easily prove to be deadly—to individual Israelis and to the prospect of progress—if the security situation were to deteriorate after Israel is pushed into concessions on the ground. In this respect, too, the real outcome is yet to be tested—at the table, and on the ground, where it remains to be seen whether Abbass’s security forces have what it takes to fight the terrorist infrastructures.
  • The “better life” package for the Palestinians (quite specifically, for those who live under Abbas’s governance in the West Bank; those in Gaza will continue to suffer, in terms of their daily lives as a consequence of Hamas policies). Going into the meetings, there were still some serious disagreements between Israel and the U.S. on aspects of this package: the extent of the settlement freeze; the numbers of prisoners to be released (the 450 already approved by the Israeli Cabinet will surely be followed by more); reduction of checkpoints and local redeployments; and various economic measures. Still, in many respects, this is the field on which the true achievements of Annapolis will soon take on a real and practical aspect—pointing toward the up-and-coming donors conference in Paris, where the world will be asked to translate the spirit of Annapolis into nickels and dimes.

 

This in itself would have been enough to justify the good cheer in Washington and Jerusalem—and to bolster the claim that U.S. influence is again on the rise. Moreover, side by side with these practical aspects of the “event” at Annapolis, there was also the symbolic dimension—the impressive, and indeed costly, “photo opportunity” and the message that it sends: namely, that the great majority of countries in the region and the Muslin world are able to transcend enmity sufficiently to be seen together (even if a handshake with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was declared to be too much for the Saudi foreign minister). This, in turn, served to isolate, diminish, and, just maybe, deter the forces now clustered around Iran: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and elsewhere, and other radical and subversive elements.

Amidst all this, another uncertain aspect has to do with the consequences of the invitation extended to the Syrian regime, which could prove to be either the most brilliant touch in putting together the “visuals,” or a sad and costly mistake, depending upon the way the Syrians themselves interpret their presence in Annapolis. To lure them, they were offered a session on a “comprehensive” peace, code word for future negotiations about the Golan. They nevertheless responded with a calculated half-snub, and despite their obvious eagerness to be counted “in,” sent their deputy foreign minister and not his boss (who was “busy elsewhere”), thus complying with the Arab League’s decision to attend, but demonstrating their defiance of America at one and the same time. Syria’s presence certainly made the life of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas somewhat easier: It will be difficult to paint him and other attendees as traitors to the cause, as Hamas and Iran have been trying to do.

The open question, however, is whether the Syrians came (as some U.S. Administration voices speculated) because they are in the painful process of learning a lesson about their marginal position, which requires them to change course and play by rules more acceptable to the moderate Arabs and to the West; or rather, in Bashar Assad’s convoluted world view, they may now come to the conclusion that the invitation, and the “Golan” session, actually prove their centrality, and they can now strengthen their hand even further by pushing for power in Lebanon and derailing the attempts to elect a compromise candidate as president. We shall be wiser by Friday, when another parliamentary vote is taken. (Syria ensured that their enemies in Lebanon, the “March 14 movement,” were short of a two-thirds majority, by murdering their members of Parliament in recent months.) Be that as it may, it may soon become necessary to explain to Assad that his man may have been in the photo frame—but only the abandonment of terror as a tool, true liberty for Lebanon, the implementation of UNSCR 1701 as regards arms to Hezbollah, and the release of Israel’s abducted soldiers are his tickets to the actual negotiating table. In this respect, President Bush’s speech at Annapolis struck the right note.

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