Perhaps the most important outcome of the Annapolis conference was the demonstration that the United States is still the most important player in Middle East affairs. Though commentators have suggested American prestige and influence have been damaged by the war in Iraq, more than 40 countries answered President Bush’s invitation to the peace conference. No other country could have assembled so many nations to discuss peace in the Middle East. And it is the United States that is expected to follow up the meeting with continued diplomacy.
The obstacles to peace remain unchanged: Arab refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the unwillingness and inability of the Palestinians to halt violent attacks against Israel.
Israel has offered risky concessions on a number of core issues, including acceptance of the establishment of a Palestinian state, withdrawal to the 1967 armistice line with modifications, reaching some compromise on the sovereignty of Jerusalem, acceptance of the return of Palestinian refugees to a Palestinian state and the dismantling of a significant number of settlements.
The Palestinians, however, have not modified their intransigent positions on borders, Jerusalem, refugees or settlements. They still insist on Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 lines, a division of Jerusalem, recognition of a right for refugees to “return” to Israel and the dismantling of all settlements.
International meetings are not conducive to negotiations or reaching agreements between Israel and the Arabs. No breakthroughs were achieved and no agreements signed at Annapolis.
Bringing Arab delegates together, especially the intransigent Syrians, insured the Palestinians would be unable to offer concessions that would make them look weak to their peers. The format, therefore, hurt rather than aided the bilateral talks.
The meeting gave some international support for the talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas. They were already negotiating so it did little beyond encourage them to continue talking.
The conference breathed life into the moribund road map as the United States made a commitment to monitor compliance with its requirements. It is not clear, however, that a return to the same formula that has proved unworkable for the last three years will help advance the peace process. Moreover, the decision to refocus on the road map undercut prospects for new initiatives or a breakthrough in negotiations.
Participants recognized the importance of improving the economic situation in the territories and gave momentum to efforts to raise international aid for the Palestinians.
Most Arab states have made progress since their rejection of negotiations, recognition and peace with Israel at Khartoum 40 years ago. Israel has peace with Egypt and Jordan and has developed some mostly quiet economic relations with the Gulf and North African states.
Saudi Arabia’s participation was hailed by some as an important coup, but the Saudis missed an opportunity to break the psychological barrier when the foreign minister refused to shake hands with the Israeli foreign minister. If anything, Saudi obstructionism remains one of the principal obstacles to normalization of relations between Israel and other Arab states inclined to improve ties. No progress toward normalization was made at the conference and no groundwork was laid for doing so in the future.
Arab states, including those that do not recognize Israel, were willing to participate in the conference in part because of the recognition that they shared with Israel a concern about a hostile and expansionist Iran. The conference, however, did not make any effort to create a consensus on policy toward Iran and the subsequent publication of the National Intelligence Estimate undermined the faith of Israel and the Arab states in America’s commitment to prevent Iran from threatening their interests.
By mobilizing support around the Israeli-Palestinian track, some pressure was placed on Syria to engage in negotiations to avoid being left out, but Damascus has still done little to suggest any interest in peace with Israel. President Bashar Assad almost immediately repeated Syria’s longstanding position that Israel must completely withdraw from the Golan Heights before it will consider any change in its relations with Israel.
The ongoing negotiations between Abbas and Olmert raise some hope that progress toward a Palestinian-Israeli agreement can be achieved in the coming months, but it is clear the Annapolis conference was a failure in moving Israel any closer to peace with the Arab states or the Palestinians.