There is something delusory about the range of reactions being heard in Israel ahead of the Annapolis conference. The extreme right refers to it as to an approaching Holocaust and warns of dangerous concessions. The extreme left sees it as the last chance for Israeli-Palestinian conciliation and threatens that if it does not produce the hoped-for peace, the situation will deteriorate into chaos.
Both of these apocalyptic forecasts are groundless. Annapolis is nothing more than an attempt to institutionalize the change that has taken place in the atmosphere between Israel and the Palestinians and to try to find a way out - as modest as it may be - of the freeze that resulted from the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit and the second intifada. In addition, Annapolis is an attempt to rescue something of the prestige of President George W. Bush, whose road map has not led anywhere to date.
Anyone who expects Annapolis to lead to an agreement is ignoring the situation on the ground. The gaps between the relatively moderate Israeli stance, which is represented by the Olmert-Barak government, and the relatively moderate stance represented by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are still too profound. Even a consensual declaration of principles is apparently unattainable: In any declaration of principles, the Palestinians will demand that Israel agree, more or less, to a return to the 1967 borders and to turning Jerusalem into the capital of the two states. It is hard to imagine that the Israeli government would be willing and able to do so at present. Although we can reasonably assume that a future settlement, if it is in fact achieved, will follow those guidelines, an outright declaration to that effect by Israel is not politically feasible at the moment.
The same is true regarding Israel's demand that the Palestinians give up the right of return and recognize Israel as the Jewish national state. It is hard to see the Palestinians capable of doing this at present. This said, it is clear that such a concession and such recognition will be a crucial element of a future agreement. Israel has already twice, at Camp David in 1978 and in Oslo in 1993, recognized the legitimate rights of the Arab-Palestinian nation, and it was the mistake of both Menachem Begin and Yossi Beilin not to demand the same recognition from the Palestinian side. It is clear that in the final analysis, such Palestinian recognition will be required, as the basis of the principle of dividing the country and of "two states for two nations."
Above all else hovers Hamas' control of Gaza: The infighting between members of Fatah and Hamas is not exactly the ideal backdrop for a historic conciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. It is clear that first the Palestinians have to reach an internal national understanding among themselves - one not determined by violence.
What can nevertheless be expected of Annapolis? First, something has already been achieved. After almost six years in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not spoken to each other, in recent weeks they have been meeting regularly. Perhaps they have not yet reached agreements, but the fact they are talking is in itself an achievement that should not be made light of.
That is what will happen in Annapolis as well: An international event in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders meet is no small achievement after the humiliating failure of Camp David 2000. We can assume that Annapolis will not be merely a photo-op, but that an agreement will be reached about issues that have to be discussed. We can reasonably assume that work groups will be established, as happened after the Madrid Conference, and that they will be required to report on their progress to another meeting of the conference plenum. We can also expect concrete steps by Israel such as the dismantling of illegal outposts and the removal of checkpoints, and a fight against the terrorist gangs by the Palestinians.
It is in fact a modest endeavor, and certainly not the End of Days. But after the collapse of the Oslo Accords and what seemed to be a rift that could not be mended, this is a certain and significant achievement. Only in this way, step by step, will peace ever be established in our region.
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