Outgoing administrations typically experience a decline in their international power during their waning months in office for two key reasons. First, the sitting administration increasingly loses its ability to execute new commitments with each passing day, thus undercutting its reliability as a partner or adversary. Second, other states and international actors pay less attention to the administration as they begin preparing for dealing with a new administration–and the new set of policies, players, and goals that come with it.
Still, one might expect that this pattern shouldn’t apply to diplomatic developments in the Middle East. After all, both Barack Obama and John McCain have consistently said that they would continue along the lines of the Annapolis “process,” which the Bush administration still insists is relevant. Moreover, as Noah alluded to, the (highly favored) Obama team features a number of high-ranking former peace processors, which means that Obama’s stated commitment to strong U.S. involvement in the peace process has been matched with the appropriate personnel. In short, there’s every reason to believe that the Annapolis “process” could be batted around in American diplomatic circles for years to come.
Yet both Israel and the Palestinians have indicated that they are moving on. During a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week, Israeli President Shimon Peres declared his support for the Arab peace initiative–the Saudis’ 2002 peace proposal in which Israel would entirely withdraw to the 1967 borders in exchange for fully normalized (though not necessarily fully diplomatic) relations with all Arab states. Meanwhile, while meeting with Mubarak yesterday in Cairo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that 75 Islamic countries were prepared to normalize relations with Israel should it withdraw to the 1967 borders under the terms of the Arab initiative.
Make no mistake: the Arab initiative is as poorly suited as Annapolis for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because it suffers from the same foundational flaws. Like Annapolis, it has no solution for Mahmoud Abbas’s (partially self-inflicted) political weakness; no solution for Hamas’ intransigence; and depends on a left-of-center Israeli government, which will probably not exist in February. Even so, Arabs and Israelis’ turn away from the U.S. on this issue is a troubling sign for American power in the Middle East. Indeed, it suggests that the Annapolis peace conference – which convened eleven months ago yesterday – has not only failed to promote peace, but has further undermined international confidence in American foreign policy.
For this reason, the winner of next week’s presidential election would be well advised to renounce Annapolis as soon as possible. The incoming president should announce a freeze on U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking until both parties’ domestic political situations are resolved. Without this declaration, Israel and the Palestinians will have every reason to believe that the next U.S. administration will follow along the lines of Annapolis–and thus every reason to sideline American proposals indefinitely.