The Consensus Conference

It is desirable to go to Annapolis because Israel is interested in consolidating an international front against Iran and its supporters in the region, and in diplomacy there is no free lunch.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has yet to reach an agreement with the Palestinians or the Syrians, but he has managed to make peace between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yossi Beilin. Fact: these two opposition leaders on the right and left share the opinion that the Annapolis conference should not be held in its present format. Although Netanyahu is opposed to giving up a single millimeter in the territories and Beilin thinks Israel's positions are not generous enough, their conclusion is similar: Both believe that the conference is unnecessary.

It is hard to recall a diplomatic event that has aroused as broad a consensus as this conference, to the point where it can be labeled "the consensus conference." Experts, pundits and politicians in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States are united in their belief that nothing will come of this festive event. They are all saying that Olmert, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and President George W. Bush are weak, and even if they want to promote the two-state solution, they will not succeed in the short time they have left in power. The public apathy in Israel and the media's disregard convey a similar message. As far as they are concerned, the conference will at most contribute to winter tourism in Washington D.C. and its suburbs.

There are reasons for this pessimism. The difficulties in the preparatory talks before the conference indicate that the sides have only toughened their stances during the years of the intifada, and despite their long acquaintance there is still no trust between them. The surveys in Israel and the territories demonstrate broader public support for an arrangement to divide the country, but the leaders are having difficulty translating this into positions acceptable in negotiations. Each side is sticking to its demands and claims, and is insisting that its rival be the first to compromise. The American mediators prefer to focus on the production aspect of the conference at the naval academy rather than get involved in content.

No final-status agreement will be reached between Israel and the Palestinians next year, not even in the form of a "shelf agreement" whose implementation is postponed. Israel feels sufficiently strong to continue to control the territories and maintain the settlements, and the Fatah leadership feels too weak to give up the idea of the "right of return." In such a situation it is impossible to reach an agreement about "territories in exchange for refugees."

Even the implementation of the "road map" is a fantasy. Abbas will not dismantle the terror organizations, and Olmert will not dismantle the outposts or stop construction in the settlements. Israel will withdraw from the West Bank only when it faces strong diplomatic and demographic pressure, as happened in the Gaza Strip. Until then the present status quo will continue more or less, with Israel conducting fruitless negotiations with the Fatah government that operates under its aegis.

If that is the case, why is there such international enthusiasm for the Annapolis conference, and why is everyone, even the Syrians, pleading for invitations? It is difficult to assume that all the statesmen and diplomats fail to understand the obstacles preventing a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or maybe they only want a free flight to the shopping bargains of the American holiday season. It is also hard to believe that experienced politicians such as Olmert and Abbas, who are unparalleled when it comes to political maneuvering, have suddenly been blinded by illusions and do not understand that they have undertaken an impossible mission of a "final-status agreement within a year." After all, they did not come to power because of their naivete, but thanks to a proper combination of backroom deals and timing.

Therefore we must ask: Why is it worth Olmert's while to go to Annapolis? There are several answers. First, because Bush invited him, and one doesn't say no to Bush. Second, because Israel is interested in talks with its neighbors and in good behavior in the international arena. Third, because the diplomatic step that will begin after the conference can help reduce friction with the Palestinians. Fourth, because it is too early for Israel to abandon Fatah, and it is worthwhile for Israel to resuscitate Abbas' government in a hope for better days.

Fifth, and most important, it is desirable to go to Annapolis because Israel is interested in consolidating an international front against Iran and its supporters in the region, and in diplomacy there is no free lunch. In return for strengthening the pro-American axis in the Middle East, Israel is being asked to declare its willingness to withdraw from the territories and back up its words with some steps on the ground. That is a worthwhile and even cheap price for international support, and Olmert is gladly willing to pay it.