Mideast meeting now down to one day; Syria engagement could be on tap.
by James D. Besser
A summit that spurred fears on the right of sweeping new Israeli concessions and hopes on the left of an end to the long negotiating impasse now looks more like a diplomatic set piece choreographed to launch arduous negotiations over a revived and revised Mideast road map.
And with less than two weeks to go, there are more questions than answers about the one-day meeting at Annapolis, Md. There have been no invitations issued, no RSVPs received and conflicting stories about what might be on the agenda. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who discussed the meeting in a speech to the United Jewish Communities General Assembly on Tuesday, did little to clear up the confusion.
The Zionist Organization of America wants to hold a protest rally at Annapolis, “but it’s very hard to plan because we don’t know any details,” said Morton Klein, the group’s president.
Despite persistent rumors in right-wing circles about all-but-done deals for major new territorial concessions — and despite reports in the Israeli press that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will announce a freeze on settlement expansions before the conference as a signal of Israel’s commitment to the process — a broad spectrum of Jewish leaders share the administration’s downsized expectations.
“It’s just a meeting about having meetings,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “At most, it will set the stage for further negotiations. The only dramatic thing will be who attends and who doesn’t, not what is said and not what is agreed to.”
But the question of attendance is proving explosive. This week there were heightened indications that the Bush administration is pushing hard for Syrian participation, although there was no consensus in Jewish leadership circles about what that means.
Over the weekend Rice said on ABC News that “this meeting is about Israel and the Palestinians, but we understand that ultimately there has to be a comprehensive agreement and there has to be progress on the other tracks as well.”
Some pro-peace process activists say dealing with Syria in the Annapolis context makes sense.
“Breaking the current, unproductive position of isolating Syria could produce one of the most significant outcomes of Annapolis,” said Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation. “If you really want to give this conference a broader buy-in in the region and move beyond the current divisions which make it much more difficult to move the process forward, then a real effort must be made to engage with Syria.”
Groups on the Jewish right complained about administration pressure on Israel to give away Golan, but other sources said this week that the Olmert government is the one doing the pushing.
“Olmert is in such a shaky position in his coalition, poll standings and legal predicament that he’s throwing pixie peace dust in every direction,” said Lenny Ben-David, a former Israel diplomat in Washington.
Pulling Syrian into the negotiations, he said, may provide Olmert with a politically expedient alternative to negotiating issues such as Jerusalem and West Bank settlements — negotiations that would stress his fragile coalition.
Ben-David, who is close to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, also said that Defense Minister Ehud Barak “has a history of preferring the Syrian negotiating front over the Palestinian one. Remember Barak going to Shepherdstown in January 2000? Only when that broke down Barak went to Camp David with Clinton and Arafat six months later for Palestinian talks.”
The administration has said this meeting is only about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but few observers expect the Syrians to come without some indication their top issue — the Golan Heights — will be addressed.
And that could undermine the Bush administration’s core goal of an Israel-Palestinian agreement by adding to Olmert’s domestic political difficulties.
“You would burden an already difficult process with the Palestinians with an even more complicated process with the Syrians,” said Martin Raffel, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).
Mostly, Jewish leaders say they don’t know what to expect from the summit, except that they shouldn’t expect a lot.
“I’m just not sure who’s doing what here,” said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), who said the pre-summit climate is much murkier than before previous high-profile meetings. “I’m not sure who’s pushing whom.”
And Bryen said it is far from clear whether Olmert and Bush expect serious negotiations on the Israeli-Syrian front — or just hope Syria’s presence will help boost the Israeli-Palestinian process.
Rice’s Speech To UJC
In her speech to UJC, Rice did not part the fog surrounding the conference. She said “most Palestinians and most Arab states are ready to end the conflict. I believe that most Israelis are ready to leave most of the — nearly all of the West Bank, just as they were ready to leave Gaza, for the sake of peace.” (See JTA Q&A with Rice on page 30.)
But “Israelis and Palestinians alike need to recognize that peace will require difficult, painful sacrifices to some of their longest-held aspirations,” she said. “The same is true of responsible Arab states.”
Rice linked Israel’s future to negotiations with the Palestinians. “In our view, the security of the democratic Jewish state required the creation of a responsible Palestinian state,” she said.
And she depicted the summit as critical to U.S. efforts to contain an expansionist Iran.
“Violent extremists, which the government of Iran increasingly lead, are doing everything in their power to impose their fear, their resentments and their hate-filled ideologies on the people of the Middle East, Rice told the delegates. “This makes the two-state solution even more urgent than ever.
Some analysts say the administration increasingly views progress in Israel-Palestinian peacemaking as a linchpin in its effort to build a regional coalition to contain Iran — a coalition that some here hope will include Syria.
But others say Iran is more of an excuse by an administration whose hopes for an Israel-Palestinian breakthrough at Annapolis have steadily eroded.
“Since Annapolis won’t be the site of an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, there is a desire to depict it as having broader regional significance, to bring in other Arab states,” said an official with a major pro-Israel group here.
At the same time, the administration has been steadily dialing down expectations for a session that was once supposed to including a declaration of principles for negotiations on critical final status issues.
The real purpose of Annapolis is to “launch” a new version of the Middle East Road Map, said David Makovsky, senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The goal, Makovsky said, is a “dual-track process, in which the Palestinians implement the first phase while negotiating the third phase. That’s what’s new here. And it’s about the other Arab states doing their share. That’s where Rice’s focus is now.”
The first phase of the 2003 plan requires the Palestinians to improve security and fight terrorism, while Israel curbs settlement activity and eases conditions for Palestinians on the West Bank (this week, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that in response to U.S. pressure Israel will announce a settlements freeze before the conference). The third phase involves the critical final-status issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
If Syria comes to Annapolis, he predicted, it will be as “part of the Arab league follow up committee initiative. That will be the vehicle for Syrian participation; it won’t be a precursor for the administration changing its policies in terms of how it views Syria.”
Instead of producing a declaration of principals on issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and borders — the initial goal suggested for the meeting — the Annapolis session, if it works, will merely produce a mechanism for additional talks.
And a meeting that was once seen as a venue for detailed negotiations will now focus on the broader goal of building political support for the political weak Olmert and the weaker Abbas.
“It’s speeches, not negotiations,” said Makovsky. “That’s why I don’t think there will be any surprises.”