WASHINGTON - With formal invitations to a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian leaders finally sent out Tuesday, many doubts and uncertainties linger about the substance of the conference and its potential effectiveness as a step towards lasting peace in the Middle East.
The official invitations from the United States, confirmed by aides to Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas and Isreali Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, come only one week ahead of the planned talks on Nov. 27 in Annapolis, Maryland.
Over 100 representatives of foreign governments and international organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union are reportedly expected to attend.
"I fear that Annapolis and the way that Annapolis is framed still suffers from same problems of the previous peace process," said New America Foundation fellow and former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy, referring to the last round of U.S.-led negotiations in 2000 at Camp David and calling the latest talks "ill-conceived and ill-prepared".
The Annapolis talks were originally announced to make substantive progress towards a detailed peace agreement that would include specifics about the "final status" of a Palestinian state and include broad participation from neighbouring Arab states. But recent disagreements between Israel and Palestine and vagueness about who will attend the conference call into question the viability of these goals.
Participation by Israel's Arab neighbours is considered paramount in effective talks as their implicit recognition of Israel gives the politically-weakened heads of both principal negotiators political cover for selling compromises to their citizens.
None of the neighbours -- including Syria and Saudi Arabia, which have no diplomatic relations with Israel -- are expected to respond to the invitations until after meetings of the Arab League that start this Thursday in Egypt. Syria has said it would not attend unless there was discussion about the Golan Heights -- captured by Israel in 1967 -- which appears doubtful.
With such a short period left before the meeting, it looks increasingly unlikely that the two main parties will be able to draft any statement of joint purpose before next week -- a central aim of the ever-diminishing expectations for the talks.
"Success entails some sort of a process," said David Wurmser, a former Middle East advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, at an Israel Project panel on the upcoming talks. "I would set a low bar -- success means that no damage is done."
Wurmser focused much of his opening remarks on the threats of North Korea, Venezuela and particularly Iran. He views the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a low priority, but which gets a disproportional amount of attention from the George W. Bush administration -- noting that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is "almost wearing a hole in the atmosphere" with all her travel to the Middle East as part of the planning of the summit.
Conversely, Levy said that the U.S. was using an increased push for a solution to the Palestinian problem as a show of good faith to Arab nations to try to garner their support in opposition to the regional goals of Iran. This, said Levy, is consistent with the findings of the Iraq Study Group which took an "outside-in approach" to alleviating anti-U.S. sentiment and tensions due to the U.S. presence in Iraq by making some of the Arab states' priorities come to life in U.S. foreign policy.
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With expectations so drastically lowered for any concrete steps forward in the peace process, it appears that the meeting in Annapolis could be reduced to a public relations campaign for many of the involved parties -- even U.S. participants.
"I think it goes back to why [Secretary Rice] was so eager to announce this conference," said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. "Her legacy now is that she is known as the person who stood in front of the world and said 'we don't want a ceasefire yet' when Israel was bombing Lebanon in the summer of 2006. She wants a photo-op that will give her a legacy as a peace-maker."
While many experts say that the "final status" is all but hashed out with little left to do but draft documents and sign them, a row between the Palestinian Authority and Olmert last week in the press shows how far apart the two sides are on some of the final status issues.
Olmert had announced that the formation of a Palestinian state would be contingent upon its recognition of Israel as a "state for the Jewish people" -- a condition that could have implications for the contentious issue of the right-of-return for some five million Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian leadership promptly rejected the new condition.
Notably absent from the invitee list is the Islamic movement Hamas. Deemed a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and others, the group's political wing gained power in January 2006 elections, but took up arms against Abbas' Fatah faction after a period of heightened tensions culminated in failure to reach an agreement for shared power.
The resulting conflict between the two factions came to a head in June when Hamas used force to seize control of the Gaza Strip, effectively dividing the Palestinian Authority in two, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah the West Bank.
The division of power in Palestine is emblematic of the risks of failure of the conference -- another fruitless attempt at negotiations and inability to make satisfactory gains towards progress could compound Palestinian frustration and lead moderates into the hands of extremists.
"If Palestinian people see no progress, they will have an intifada," warned Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal during a recent meeting with a delegation from the Centre for the National Interest Foundation, making reference to the Arabic word for "shaking off" used to describe violent Palestinian uprisings. Mashaal also told the delegation that "if negotiations can succeed, this is the preferable way."
The Annapolis meetings also run the risk of wearing down the U.S. public's patience with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"Overwhelmingly, the American people give to their elected officials a great deal of leeway to deal with the complex situation in the Middle East," said former senator Gary Hart at a New America meeting last week. "An inconsequential meeting in Annapolis followed by a series of inconsequential meetings, and the American people will say 'forget about it' -- in an American colloquialism, 'to hell with it.'"
"My concern here is that towards the end of each two-term administration, you have this grab at Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that is all you can do," said Levy at the same conference last week. "I'm worried that you could now describe Annapolis as an obstacle that you have to survive."
© 2007 Inter Press Service