The Annapolis Talks / Blaming the Other Guy

Israeli-Palestinian disputes over the anticipated Annapolis declaration resemble theological disputes from the Middle Ages: Negotiators argue over whether the road map's first stage should be implemented sequentially or simultaneously, and whether disagreements should be resolved by a trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-American committee or a single American arbitrator.

The road map's first phase states that the Palestinian Authority must take "sustained, targeted and effective" action against terror, while Israel must freeze settlements, evacuate outposts and reopen PA institutions in East Jerusalem. Both sides know that none of these things will happen. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas opposes terror, but is incapable of fighting it. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert supports evacuating both outposts and settlements, but does not want a battle with the settlers now. That is clear from the way he avoided announcing a settlement freeze yesterday, instead making do with an ambiguous comment about Israel's commitment to the road map and pledges not to build new settlements or expropriate Palestinian land - pledges that Ariel Sharon made to the Americans six years ago. As Dov Weissglas said, Abbas and Olmert would need "to become Finns" to implement the road map.

So why all the fuss about the wording of a declaration that will never be implemented? Very simple: Each side is preparing for the day after Annapolis, by seeking to ensure that the inevitable breakdown is blamed on the other. The Palestinians will claim that Israel is still building in the settlements; Israel will claim that the PA is not fighting terror, and therefore the Israel Defense Forces must continue to control the West Bank. Thus each side wants the declaration to be formulated in a way that will make it easier to persuade Washington, and the rest of the world, of the other's culpability.

But despite the difficulties, a declaration probably will be formulated before next week's summit - if only because U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will decide any disputes that have not been resolved by then.

Both sides warned, via the media, of a crisis this week, and Israel, as always, pulled out the shopworn threat of "switching to the Syrian track" - a tactic it used even during the original Oslo talks. But, again as always, it seems that a joint declaration will ultimately emerge. The only problem will be how to implement it.