EDITORIAL | Summit prospects Annapolis Summit: Progress or Photo-Op?


American, Israeli and Palestinian officials all have downplayed their expectations for the Middle East Peace Summit scheduled for this week in Annapolis, Md. A few hopeful observers think the summit might — at least — lead to progress in the two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. A majority of commentators, however, are pessimistic, and think the conference is nothing more than a series of staged “photo opportunities” with President George Bush standing between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, evoking images of Jimmy Carter circa 1979.

Roger Cohen, writing in last Monday’s op-ed page of The New York Times, succinctly summarizes why so many observers of the Middle East are pessimistic about its chances for success: “I don’t want to despair although Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, is beset by criminal investigations, and President Bush is forlorn, and the only man who makes both these leaders look powerful is the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who controls only the West Bank Wing of his national movement.” Adding that “hopelessness is no option,” Cohen goes on to observe, “….the current ‘West Bank first’ strategy comes just two years after a ‘Gaza first’ approach. This had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declaring in 2005 how critical it was to ‘seize the moment’ — before the moment evaporated and Hamas grabbed control of Gaza.”

To be sure, Ehud Olmert does not have the advantage of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had strong backing in the State of Israel not only from his conservative and nationalistic Likud Party, but also from his Labor Party colleagues who were eager for a peace agreement. And Mahmoud Abbas, while seemingly moderate and well-intentioned, seems to have neither the ability nor the will, and certainly not the broad backing needed to make a deal stick. Meanwhile, President Bush is nearing the end of his term with low approval ratings and considerable skepticism about his foreign policies in the aftermath of the decision to go to war in Iraq.

On the other hand, the very facts outlined above could make it more likely that Olmert, Abbas and Bush, along with the other invited representatives from mostly Sunni Arab states, will try all the harder to make real progress at Annapolis. Under prodding from Rice, Olmert and Abbas have held a series of preliminary meetings aimed at coming up with at least a joint statement of principles or goals for the conference. An overall consensus has been reached that a two-state solution, involving the creation of an independent Palestinian Arab State living in peace and security alongside the independent Jewish State of Israel is the only realistic option for the dilemma.

The late Abba Eban, who served as Israel’s first ambassador to the United States and later to the United Nations, and who was foreign minister of Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, famously observed, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The Palestinians missed an opportunity for an independent state of their own in 1947; as a result, Jordan took over the West Bank and Egypt took over the Gaza Strip, preventing that very state from coming into existence. At the July 2000 summit meeting hosted by President Bill Clinton at Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was ready to offer major concessions in the interests of peace, but then-Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat adamantly refused even to respond to the Clinton-Barak offer.

Will the Palestinians once again miss an opportunity for a state of their own? Will Olmert and Abbas be able to resist intense pressures from both the left and the right and focus on what is ultimately in the interests of long-term peace for Israelis and Palestinians? Will the representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and possibly even Syria not only attend the Annapolis talks but make a positive contribution to their success? Will Bush and Rice, in the waning months of their troubled administration be able to achieve real progress, or will we once again have to settle for more staged, flag-draped ceremonies and photo-ops? Too much is at stake for all parties involved for Annapolis to be just another empty public relations stunt.

We strongly hope that the Annapolis summit makes real progress toward peace. In this season of Thanksgiving, that would be a development for which to be immensely thankful