Without conferences, without linkage
The Annapolis conference lacks the fear of enforcement that made the conferences of the past so important. At least the hospitality will really be something.
Like a recipe for a meal from leftovers sitting in the refrigerator, the Annapolis conference seeks to combine everything, mix well and serve. Perhaps the diners won't notice the moldy clumps covered up with heavy spices, especially in the context of a respectable event. After all, what does the failed road map, laden with landmines, have to do with kick-starting the peace process between Israel and Syria? What does an Israeli-Palestinian peace have to do with Iran, and what is the connection between the Arab initiative and the crisis in Lebanon?
The Annapolis conference is also designed to counter Iran's influence, Condoleezza Rice declared at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Nashville, adding another subtopic to the agenda. And how will Iran be expelled from the arena? The answer certainly cannot be found in the discussions between Israel and the Palestinians, but in the possibility that Israel and Syria conduct negotiations on the return of the Golan Heights. Israel, as obliged, will present the obstructing condition that Syria must cut its ties with Iran to take part in this enterprise. Then, if Syria were to respond affirmatively, Iran would be out.
And what would happen if Syria, like Turkey or Saudi Arabia, did not agree to sever its ties with Iran but adopted the principles of the Arab initiative and seeks to establish normal relations with Israel in exchange for the Golan Heights? Would Israel be able to reject it? If isolating Iran is now the objective, what prevented Israel from conducting talks with Syria before the conference, and what deterred Washington from pushing Israel to such negotiations before Annapolis? Was it not the same Washington that blocked the Syrian channel and, on the other hand, is it not the same Washington of Annapolis that now seeks Iranian influence in Iraq, because it turns out that Iran is making a real contribution to lowering the number of attacks in Iraq?
But these questions make no impression on the fans of linkage or concoctions. They find it difficult to free themselves from the all-encompassing outlook that views the Middle East as a single entity, with every flutter of a butterfly's wing in Iraq influencing what happens in Gaza's Sajaia neighborhood. Those for whom "the Arabs are the same Arabs" see the Annapolis conference, or any international conference, as a remedy for the problems of the "Middle East" - for all the problems of the Middle East. Take a few Palestinians, a few Syrians, a few "moderate" Arabs, shake well and serve.
However, it is hard to recall a single international conference that not only proposed solutions - there have been plenty of these - but also created a mechanism for implementing them. On the other hand, bilateral talks have produced more effective results. The peace accord between Israel and Egypt was not generated by an international conference. It was crafted by people with imagination and daring. The Madrid Conference did not generate the Oslo Accords. They were the product of secret discussions conducted under Madrid's nose. The formative non-paper known as the "Rabin deposit," designed to promote negotiations between Israel and Syria, was not given to Warren Christopher, the American secretary of state, in the framework of an international conference.
True, there have been successful international conferences such as those at the end of the world wars; conferences in which new borders were drawn, forces were deployed and new nation-states were formed, with guarantees provided for their establishment. There have been conferences in which the great powers not only proposed an agenda, but enforced it.
The Annapolis conference is not one of those. Not because it does not aspire to be like one of those historic conferences, but because it is weak-kneed. The single superpower, which did not hesitate to embark on two major wars within two years, against Afghanistan and Iraq, gets a panic attack when it comes to enforcing its own peace policy.
Back in the days of president Ronald Reagan and his White House chief of staff James Baker, the slogan was coined that the United States cannot want peace more than the sides themselves. Bill Clinton diverged from this policy and made an impressive step in an effort to promote diplomatic processes, but since the beginning of George W. Bush's tenure, the "spirit of Baker" is back in service in the White House. The result is that the Annapolis conference lacks the fear of enforcement that made the conferences of the past so important. At least the hospitality will really be something.