ANNAPOLIS, Md. - If there is one lesson to be learned from the Annapolis summit, it is that American leadership in the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors is essential. Only the stubbornness of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the backing she received from U.S. President George W. Bush succeeded in bringing here the foreign ministers of most Arab countries and the world's leading diplomats. They came to applaud Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas and push them onward toward another attempt, no matter how desperate and filled with political obstacles, at a permanent settlement.
The diplomatic success of Bush and Rice this week justifies in retrospect the repeated complaints about them these past seven years, that they had allowed the Israelis and Palestinians to sink in rivers of blood and avoided the kind of intervention that could have restrained the conflict and calmed the atmosphere in the region. Bush is aware of these complaints, and he knows that now people will ask him about his absence from involvement to date, and accuse him of negligence. He therefore said during his speech at Annapolis that this is the appropriate time for renewing the peace process, because the Israeli and Palestinian leaders want a compromise, and the Middle East is divided between the extremists and the moderates.
It is possible that Bush is right, and it had been necessary to wait until Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon were replaced by less charismatic leaders, whose political future depends on the diplomatic process. Maybe it was necessary to wait until Olmert emerged from the crisis of the Second Lebanon War and Abbas ended the partnership with Hamas following the Fatah defeat in the Gaza Strip. In any case, there is no point in crying over spilt milk, and it is best to look ahead. But Olmert and Abbas, despite their moderation, their goodwill and the personal chemistry between them, would not have managed to achieve a thing without pressure from Washington. The minute they emerged from their closed meetings in the Prime Minister's Office, they faced strong opposition from the establishment on both sides, who threatened to bring down the process before it even got started. The forces wishing to preserve the status quo are stronger than the two leaders.
America's strength stems from its ability to manage changes and emerge stronger, as well as the fact that it is hard to say no to it. Olmert had excellent arguments for rejecting the ideas Rice put forth for a "political horizon" and a "settlement on the shelf." Abbas had wonderful excuses, about weakness and a dysfunctional situation that prevented him from embarking on genuine negotiations. The Saudi Arabians had great reasons to stay at home and not come to Annapolis while the occupation continues and the settlements are still standing.
Nonetheless, each of them changed their mind and altered his arguments the moment it became clear that Bush is behind this initiative and is not willing to grant anyone a reprieve. From that moment onward, everyone became an optimist, desiring peace and believing that it is possible to do so in a year's time. The best analysis was by Ehud Barak: no Israeli leader, he said, from the right or the left, can allow himself not to give the diplomatic process a chance under such international circumstances.
However, with all due respect to the Bush-Rice success at Annapolis, their real test is still before them, and it all depends on their determination and perseverance. Their earlier peace initiatives, the Aqaba summit in 2003 and the crossings agreement in 2005, collapsed a short while later, and the belligerents were once more left alone and reverted to their old habits.
The joint statement at Annapolis came to fruition only because of the bridging proposals of the Americans and the pressure Bush and Rice exercised at the last minute. The differences revolved around nearly every word, and the compromise that was achieved reflected a departure from difficult decisions instead of dealing with them.
The only chance the process has for success, or at least for significant progress on the way to an agreement, lies in continued American leadership. It is common knowledge now that the message hits home only if it is repeated, over and over, until those hearing it are angered by it. This needs to be Rice's strategy. Only if she stubbornly nags Israel and the Palestinians by frequent visits, by pressing through mediating proposals, and if Bush constantly reiterates that he is backing his secretary of state, will it be possible to make progress. If the administration lifts its hands off the process once again, the Annapolis summit will join the pile of diplomatic events that vanished without a trace.
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