In its latest issue, dated November 8, The New York Review of Books published in a prominent - if not screaming - manner a letter signed by eight famous individuals and addressed to United States President George W. Bush, warning him of the grave dangers inherent in a possible failure of the Annapolis conference.
To avert this danger, the signatories suggest adopting a number of recommendations that will distance both the conference and Washington's policy from the widespread view that prevails today, albeit with slight variations, in the Bush administration and the government of Israel. The signatories include Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor in the administration of former president Jimmy Carter; Lee Hamilton, the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor of former president George H. Bush; and Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
The authors see the Annapolis conference as "a genuine opportunity for progress toward a two-state solution." They believe that the Middle East is in the throws of an extremely grave crisis and that a conference with a positive outcome will play a crucial role in stemming instability and violence. They also hold that the conference must deal with "the substance of a permanent peace" and that it should adopt the outlines of a permanent status agreement, especially in light of the impossibility of reaching a comprehensive agreement before the end of November. If Israelis and Palestinians do not manage to reach such an agreement, the Middle East Quartet (made up of the U.S., Russia, the EU and the UN) will have to propose a formulation of its own for an agreement that will be based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the Clinton parameters of 2000, the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and the 2003 road map.
The main points of a comprehensive agreement are the partition into two states on the basis of the June 4, 1967 lines, with additional territorial exchanges at a ratio of one to one; Jerusalem as the capital of both states; a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in a manner concordant with the principle of two states, alongside addressing the profound sense of injustice among the refugees and their compensation and rehabilitation.
The signatories congratulate the Bush administration for inviting Syria to the conference but believe that the U.S. government itself should also enter into negotiations with Damascus, based on the belief that a breakthrough in this channel could change the regional situation. As for Hamas, it is preferable to hold a dialogue with it than to attempt to isolate it.
The recommendations that appear in "the letter of the eight" and the basic assumptions on which it rests are not surprising. Its initiators have been disagreeing with the Bush administration's Middle East policy for years now. The letter is presented as a joint initiative of the U.S./Middle East Project, Inc. headed by General Brent Scowcroft and Henry Siegman and the International Crisis Group headed by Gareth Evans, along with the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.
Scowcroft's chilly attitude toward Israel has been known for years and Henry Siegman, who was the director general of the American Jewish Congress, has been identified with and continues to uphold opinions that are in line with those of Meretz's left wing. For more than a decade now, Gareth Evans, Australia's former foreign minister, has been the primary advocate at the International Crisis Group of a view that disagrees with the positions of the governments of Israel and the Bush administration. Hamilton was James Baker's partner in the Baker-Hamilton committee, which recommended embarking on a dialogue with Iran and Syria, which he viewed as one of the essential elements for a solution to the Iraqi mess - the other element being the Israeli-Arab conflict. In their view, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and its Palestinian aspect in particular, are responsible for the region's instability and the spread of anti-American attitudes. Without giving the Israeli-Palestinian issue a "root canal" treatment, the United States will not be able to resolve the crisis in Iraq and deal with the other challenges it is facing in the region.
It is not surprising that this letter was published in The New York Review of Books, the bastion of the liberal intelligentsia in the United States. Among its regular contributors are those who can be found on the left of the Israeli consensus, and it published historian Tony Judt's article calling for the establishment of a binational state in Israel.
The chances that "the letter of the eight" will influence the Bush administration's policy are small. The administration wants the Annapolis conference to be a success for reasons of its own and it is certainly not interested in another resounding failure in the Middle East. Indeed, its attempts to prevent a negative outcome - including the American secretary of state's efforts to invite Syria to the conference - are narrowing the gap between it and the letter's formulators. Nevertheless, the letter's spirit and the practical suggestions it contains are unacceptable to the administration and, above all, to the president.
The importance of this letter must be sought in two other contexts. The first is the effort to shape the American agenda on "the day after" the presidential elections. This is not the only attempt. Think tanks and other organizations are preparing reports of their own, with all of them aspiring to repeat the extraordinary success of the 1976 Brookings report that was adopted by the Carter administration as its Middle East policy. The day after the elections will see an increase in the efforts to convince the new president, whoever he or she may be, that there is no better way to shake off Bush's legacy than by bringing about a far-reaching change in the Middle East policy of the United States.
Another context is the continuing erosion of Israel's standing in the United States. This does not manifest itself in public opinion polls and in votes in Congress, but rather in the loss of the "moral horizon," the change that has occurred in the standing of Israel, which used to be regarded as an attractive and just state. A clear expression of this is the recent reception of Jimmy Carter's book and of the book written by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt about the Israeli lobby, which not only expressed criticism of Israel's policy but also questioned its legitimacy. Despite the criticism to which they have been subjected, these books are making waves and their authors are appearing throughout the United States. The "letter of the eight" is another link in this chain.
The author, a Middle East specialist, was Israel's ambassador to the United States from 1993-1996.