The skeptics have unassailable arguments: History and a consistent record of failure are on their side. Weak Israeli and Palestinian governments, an American president in the last stretch of his second term, dysfunctional Israeli and Palestinian body politics, and cynical media coverage, all dampen any reasonable expectations of success for the Middle East summit in Annapolis.
Yet, Annapolis is the last realistic hope for a two-state solution and the possibility of peace it offers.
This is a sobering thought that should focus the attention of leaders involved and that of all global forces interested in peace. The worst players in the Middle East, on every side, are waiting and rubbing their hands in glee in anticipation of its failure.
Fear of failure takes precedence over success. For that reason, Annapolis has to be a process and not an event.
Success should not be measured by any one variable like the document that is being negotiated between the Palestinians and Israelis. The conference should be preceded and followed by palpable changes on the ground that will convince people of the seriousness of the exercise. It must be crowned by an agreement about a robust follow-up process that binds participants to serious negotiations and defined landmarks for implementation that lead to a viable Palestinian state.
Success can thus be more diffusely defined in making progress on three interrelated tracks: document, deliverables on the ground and mechanisms for follow-up. Such a definition will deny an easy victory for the real enemies of a two-state solution and the historic compromise on both sides.
Lest we yield to despair as we contemplate the compelling arguments for pessimism, let us examine the elements that give us reasons for guarded optimism: The White House and the State Department are communicating the same message of seriousness of American policy.
We hear a cacophony of voices raising doubts about the administration’s intentions after years of silence to the point when the question can be legitimately asked: Are the skeptics more wedded to vilifying the administration than to working for the only available opportunity for peace? Is continued conflict preferable to giving credit to this administration? While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials are talking publicly about the national interest of our country in establishing the state of Palestine alongside Israel, skeptics are talking about salvaging a legacy. What of it? It certainly would be a great legacy and, if achieved, it would be well earned.
Another reason for guarded optimism is that the Palestinian team of Mahmoud Abbas-Salam Fayyad cannot be dismissed as a non-partner. No better Palestinian team can be imagined. The “non-partner” line should not be replaced by the “they cannot deliver” line.
Have they been tested? Have they been helped? Can they be empowered to deliver? The answers are not long in coming.
On Nov. 2, the 90th Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, hundreds of Palestinian policemen have deployed in Nablus to establish law and order. The cooperation of the United States, Gen. Keith Dayton for the Quartet and Israeli Defense Department will help determine whether the Palestinian leadership team will succeed in Nablus. Nothing short of a Palestinian state rests on the success of this effort. Its failure, and the kind of neighborhood the future Middle East will present to the world, will be the responsibility of those who cause it.
The security system must twin with an economic package aimed at rebuilding Palestinian institutions to allow the economy to work its way out of subsidy and dependence. The December Donor meeting, and other public-private partnership initiatives, are as significant as Annapolis in helping to build a viable state. Once again the present Palestinian leadership team has the credibility to be a trusted partner in this effort.
A third reason lies in a new Israeli political scene altered by post-Iraq and post Lebanon war. New strategic considerations have prompted leading officials to proclaim that a Palestinian state is in Israel’s national interest. The present dysfunctional Israeli political situation, which might preclude immediate strategic concessions, has to work itself to serve the national interest. Nothing will replace the need for political courage and statesmanship, but Israel’s friends must address its concerns rather than pressure it. The Arab leaders who signed the Arab League Initiative can help matters if they convince the Israeli public of the seriousness of their intentions as they reiterate their commitment to it.
The United States should publicly and clearly articulate its own national interest in the two-state solution and the need for all its allies to understand and accommodate that. An already signed generous defense package underlines the American commitment to the security of Israel.
What of the big picture? Borders, Jerusalem and refugees? The answers lie in whether the leaders will be able to sustain a partnership that survives negotiations as it identifies and holds mutual red lines. The partners must make and implement the painful concessions they readily talk about. Their domestic entrenched and powerful opponents, and others, will use every trick in the book, as they often have, to frustrate understanding and progress. If there is one job that only the United States can do, it would be to hold the partnership together and make it succeed. The ultimate contours of the solution cannot be far removed from U.N. Resolution 242, the Clinton Parameters, the Geneva Accord, the vision of President Bush and the Arab League Initiative.
Those who are opposed to such an outcome anywhere are on the other side of peace. Those who think ganging up on Israel and making it yield to pressure should abandon their counterproductive counsel. Those who think that humiliating the Palestinians into submission must unequivocally comprehend how consistently they have been proven wrong.
Language has to be found to provide clear enough answers to the big issues to convene and invite partners to the conference and ambiguous enough to keep political leaders in the game. Such language is not magical. It is already in currency and subject to scrutiny. But the real challenge is for leaders to work their way together through the thicket of obstacles in their way beyond the meeting.The follow-up process must be structured to interlock understandings and interests of several parties committed to delivering an outcome that the two main parties can live with but not love: a certain viable Palestine living alongside a secure Israel in peace.
For the rest of us, the first thing to do is “primum non nocere,” first do no harm. Cynics and experts can do us a great favor by drawing attention to potential problems and pitfalls as they spare us their sanctimonious pronouncements that this is all in vain and that we have been here before.
Low expectations are in order — they can easily be met; however, nihilism and cynicism are not.
Ultimately, a negotiated agreement between Palestinians and Israelis to build a joint future and end the conflict is an act of statesmanship. The administration is rising to the occasion by calling for a conference to lay the tracks for such an agreement. No effort should be spared to extend support. Never has a global public-private partnership been more needed to achieve a more reasonable goal.
Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine. This article reprinted with permission from The Washington Times, November 6, 2007.