John, those are good points, and I’m largely in agreement with you on the interplay among Israel, America, and the Palestinians. It’s true—there’s going to be a time when the rubber meets the road, when all of the Annapolis rhetoric is tested against the situation on the ground. The same dynamic has controlled the entirety of the post-Gulf war history of peace processing—the ideas are old, the speeches are hackneyed plagiarisms of themselves, the strategies have always failed, the Arabs still refuse to accept Israel, administration after administration. One of the most common comments I’ve heard journalists make here today is the remark that they’ve all been there, done that when it comes to peace conferences. (Some of these guys are at the half-dozen mark.)
I think that the real significance of the conference, though, has little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The significance of Annapolis is in what it has revealed about the thinking of the Bush administration, and how it sees itself in the region today. This observation is borne out, I think, in the fact that so much of the criticism of Annapolis, especially from conservatives, has involved an airing of the feeling that the Bush administration has grotesquely betrayed the basic principles to which it committed itself in the war on terror—viz the writings of Andy McCarthy, Bret Stephens, Ralph Peters, David Frum, some guy named John Podhoretz, etc.
Annapolis is really about the Bush administration, not the peace process. It has been Condi’s pet project; she has shuttled to Israel and the Palestinian territories on a monthly basis for almost a year; she has been permitted by President Bush to prioritize a quixotic diplomatic endeavor over and above other crises that by any sensible measure are of far greater concern for the United States—Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria and Hizballah, and Pakistan, to name a few. If Condi’s pursuit of the peace process is due to a belief that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible and will unlock the forces of moderation and conviviality in the Middle East, then, well, she is simply a fool. If it is because she wishes to add this most elusive accomplishment to her legacy, then she is a narcissist. There is a more legitimate question about the extent to which American leadership in the peace process will earn us favorable treatment from European and Arab states in dealing with Iran, but I am skeptical of that line of thinking—a matter for another post.
There is an overall sense that with Annapolis, the administration is conceding the range of false premises on both the region and the conflict, premises that in earlier years the administration itself rejected—the myth of the conflict’s centrality to the Middle East; the myth of linkage, in which peripheral Arab grievances are tethered to Palestinian grievances (hence the invitation to Syria); the push to “engage” with the region’s worst offenders, so long as they are part of the grievance-with-Israel coalition; and overall the assent to the idea that the Arab states are interested in supporting a resolution to the conflict that does not involve Israel’s destruction, or at least its grave enfeeblement. The administration prostrated itself to the Saudis to win their attendance, and the Saudis repaid the favor, in the days before the conference, by releasing 1,500 al Qaeda prisoners and publicly putting the entire onus for resolving the conflict on Israel, and on rigidly Saudi terms. Bush, Rice, and their people have either genuinely bought into all of this rubbish, or they don’t mind appearing as if they have done so, thinking that such a public abnegation will put them in the good graces of Europe and the Arab world.
Either way, I think it’s been a far worse day for America than it has been for Israel.