Many analysts say this week's U.S. sponsored Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland was a boost for peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, but others are skeptical that the two sides can reach a quick settlement.
Most experts agree that the Annapolis meeting was the first important attempt in seven years to break the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The conference received important international backing and brought Arabs and Israelis together to work on Palestinian statehood.
Many analysts note the meeting didn't start from scratch. The outline of the final Israeli-Palestinian settlement has been broadly known since the launching of the U.S.-backed Roadmap for the Middle East in 2003.
The blueprint for peace was sponsored by the International Quartet, which includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. The plan never got off the ground because Israel and the Palestinians failed to meet even the initial requirements.
Several experts also note that negotiations prior to the conference, between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, exceeded in substance anything that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have achieved since the Oslo peace talks in 1993. Some say it was possible because they trust one another.
According to David Makovsky, Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "You've got two leaders that for the first time in the history of the Middle East peace process actually believe the other one is genuine. That is an important element that has not existed since the 1990s. There was always deep suspicion that the other one was not genuine," says Makovsky.
Arab Nations Play a Role
Another milestone at Annapolis, Makovsky adds, was the presence of key Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, which doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel.
"If this process is going to have hope, the Arab states have to provide the economic backbone that will make this succeed," says Makovsky. "It's important that Arabs do more and reinforce progress by these parties and demonstrate that they too have a stake in peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians."
But many analysts caution that the conference didn't spell out measures or a timetable for settling the main sticking points, such as final borders, return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem. They also say they doubt that Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas wield enough political clout to make concessions that would keep negotiations on track.
Phillip Wilcox, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace here in Washington, says the Palestinian side is in no shape to govern a Palestinian state, much less provide security guarantees that Israel is demanding. "On the Palestinian side," notes Wilcox, "there is a division between Abbas and his Fatah group in the West Bank and Hamas, the Islamist Party in Gaza. There's been a deep breach between those two factions. Hamas will not be part of the negotiating process and that's a problem on the Palestinian side."
According to Henry Siegman, President of the U.S.-Middle East Peace Project in New York, Abbas is having a hard time putting an end to violence on the part of his own people, like the Al-Aqsa brigades that are affiliated with Fatah in the West Bank. "Certainly, Abbas cannot control the violence that Hamas is capable of. To the contrary, efforts to deny Hamas the fruit of their honest election victory can only provoke Hamas' responses that will undermine any agreement reached in Annapolis," says Siegman.
High Stakes Negotiations
Wilcox sees Israel's governing coalition as one built for Mr. Olmert's political survival rather than peacemaking. He contends that while the right wing wants to keep the West Bank, dominate the Palestinians and continue with the settlements adventure, on the left and in the center, Israelis realize that the settlement experiment was a mistake. “They realize to make peace they have to turn over most of the territory to the Palestinians. But that internal division has hardly been reconciled and Olmert has been threatened by his right wing that if he were to make serious concessions, they would leave his coalition and his government would fall," says Wilcox.
According to a recent World Bank report, about half of the West Bank is off limits to Palestinians due to Israeli settlements, lands set aside for settlements, military bases and checkpoints, the security wall and road networks, which are reserved for Israeli traffic only. In spite of Israel's agreement at Oslo to stop settlements, West Bank Jewish settlers increased from about 110-thousand in 1994 to more than 250-thousand in 2005.
Middle East expert, Henry Siegman argues time is running out for a two-state solution. "It is only a question of very little time before there is a majority Arab population in historic Palestine. At that point, Palestinians could renounce a desire to create a state of their own and say, 'We will accept Israel's insistence on its control over all of Palestine and we will insist on the rights of citizenship in this state.' That creates an entirely different set of circumstances."
Many experts agree the stakes are high, including political scientist David Makovsky. He notes that many U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are concerned about how much Israelis and Palestinians resent one another.
"Rice very much fears the transformation of this conflict from a nationalist conflict, which is difficult to resolve into a religious conflict that is impossible to resolve," says Makovsky. "If this conflict goes from between Israelis and Palestinians to Jews and Muslims, it's a whole new game. Right now, moderates are on the offensive and radicals are on the defensive, if there is neglect over [the next] 12 months, it's almost certain that the reverse will be the case."
Israel and the Palestinians agreed in Annapolis to immediately launch Middle East peace talks to try to reach a final accord by the end of 2008. But many analysts caution that what comes next will define whether this gathering was different and if it will produce change in Israeli-Palestinian relations.