Every beginning driver learns not to enter an intersection unless he knows in advance how to exit it. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is taking Israel to the Annapolis intersection, and if he does not have the determination to continue from there along the route leading to the end of the conflict - he would be better off going into reverse now, and remaining at home.
The absence of a discussion on the core issues at Annapolis will leave us stuck in the intersection, exposed to extremists on both sides. The familiar syndrome is recurring: The moment of truth approaches, another opportunity is created, there is a chance of significantly promoting the political process to achieve a historic peace treaty, and then the sides suffer an attack of cold feet. The core issues - Jerusalem, refugees, borders - will be placed on the agenda, they are telling us, but we will not discuss them. On the other hand, we will talk about prisoner releases, checkpoints and the road map.
You have to be a real fool to downplay the importance of the Annapolis summit that way. Seven years have passed since the last official meeting in the context of peace negotiations, between representatives of the Israeli government and representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The planned conference - regardless of how much expectations of it are lowered - is not just another summit meeting in a series. This is a historic meeting, in which a failure means a major victory for Hamas, the end of the political career of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and perhaps a renewed outbreak of violence.
But suddenly it turns out that in order for it to succeed, the sides have to exchange some of their slogans for a political compromise. They therefore believe that it might be more convenient to return to the warm embrace of "confidence-building measures" instead of dealing with the need to reach historic compromises. This is in spite of the fact that everyone already knows that such measures have failed resoundingly in the past, and only increased the hostility and the feeling that the intentions of the other side are not honest, and that the necessary historic compromises will not cause anyone to fall off his chair - and are uttered in some manner or other by the decision-makers themselves.
The three leaders can "leverage" their weakness in the upcoming meeting. They have very little to lose and a great deal to gain. After trying everything - and we have all paid an unnecessary price - they are returning to the year 2000, and they can try to go on from there. President George W. Bush tried democratization and a willingness to integrate Hamas into Palestinian politics, and failed. Olmert tried the unilateral option in Gaza, and failed. Abu Mazen tried a national unity government with Ismail Haniyeh, and failed.
This can be their moment of truth. The moment when they say what they have long known. They can agree in Annapolis about the principles of the final-status agreement (the Bush vision, the Clinton plan, the Geneva Initiative, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan) and immediately afterward begin negotiations, which will be conducted for several months and end as early as possible, in 2008.
The implementation of the agreement should be conditioned on the ability of Palestinian security forces to carry it out, and for this purpose a multinational force can be deployed on the Palestinian side. Virtually the entire Israeli public is ready for a final-status agreement, according to the familiar principles. Virtually the entire Palestinian public supports these principles, according to all of the most recent surveys. Olmert is guaranteed an unprecedented parliamentary majority; more than 65 MKs will support the agreement he will reach. Even if he loses the support of Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, the Knesset will be with him.
In 2009 it will be impossible to return to Annapolis. A new American president will not begin his career with a Middle East summit. Abu Mazen will end his term in January 2009. Whatever is not done now will not be done in the near future. If there is no serious dialogue at this conference about the core issues, and if it does not end with clear guidelines regarding the continuation of the negotiations, it's better to stay home and to try to attain significant achievements in the bilateral talks that began a few months ago. After all, if we really want to solve this accursed problem, we do not need external partners for this purpose.