It is trite but necessary to note that if peace conferences led to peace, the Levant would be the most tranquil place on earth. There is a long list of cities and names associated with Arab-Israeli peace initiatives: the Rogers and Allon Plans after the Six Day war; the Geneva Conference in 1973; the Second Geneva Conference, which never ended up happening; the Madrid Conference in 1991; the Oslo Peace Process, inaugurated in 1993; the Hebron Agreement of 1997; the Wye River Memorandum in 1998; the Camp David Summit of 2000; the Taba Summit in 2001; the Beirut Summit in 2002; the formation of the Quartet and the issuance of the Road Map in 2003. Today, the next stop on the Peace process’s world tour has been announced: Annapolis, Maryland, sometime in November. The band is back together again.
The details on the Annapolis conference are sketchy, as there has been no confirmation of exactly when it is happening, who will be attending, what will be negotiated, or what is hoped to be accomplished. What has been announced is that Secretary Rice will emcee the event and President Bush will likely make an appearance; representatives from moderate Arab states will attend; and some kind of a joint statement of understanding between Israel and the Palestinians will be issued. Mahmoud Abbas told the Washington Post on Sunday that “I cannot really talk about the talks . . . because they are only a probing, not negotiations. We tackled all the sensitive issues like borders, refugees, settlements, Jerusalem and security . . . We have already established the teams that are drafting an agreement about these sensitive issues.” Abbas describes this agreement as “not a declaration of principles but a framework—a framework that deals with the principles of every element of the final-status issues.” (I have no idea what that means, either.)
The conference is so wracked with internal contradictions that it will be a surprise to see it rise above the level of farce. No formal agreement is expected to be negotiated, yet Abbas has repeatedly said that he will bring whatever is decided to the Palestinian people for a referendum vote. Abbas says that under no circumstances will he form a unity government with Hamas, but that one of the basic Palestinian requirements is contiguity—he calls it “safe passage”—between the West Bank and Gaza. Rice concurs, saying that a Palestinian state must be inclusive of Gaza, ruled by the PA, and that Hamas will at some point have to choose if it is “prepared to be outside that consensus or not.” How does Rice propose ridding Gaza of Hamas? By holding another conference? Hamas remains violently intransigent on the matter of Israel’s right to exist, Fatah’s political legitimacy, and indeed on the fundamental question of Palestinian identity itself: jihad or coexistence. Hamas has never demonstrated an interest in or tolerance for the latter.
Meanwhile the Fatah security forces that the United States has invested itself so heavily in training have yet to demonstrate even the slightest competence in policing the West Bank. When was the last time anyone heard of a terror plot against Israel being disrupted by Fatah security services? I sympathize with the Bush administration’s desire to demonstrate leadership in the Middle East, but I’m afraid the upcoming conference will diminish, not enhance, the United States’ standing in the region.