Annapolis: A View From the Middle East

There is little faith in Israel that the Annapolis summit will succeed in forging a Mideast peace deal, but there is also fear of what failure could bring.

To underscore those fears, Hamas will be marching in Gaza Tuesday. Israeli security is on high alert for fear of suicide attacks.

Today's meeting in Annapolis is the first serious diplomatic effort since President Clinton's in 2000 with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. When those negotiations collapsed, the intifada began.

Since then much blood has been spilled. The Israelis have built a wall. Hamas has risen.

Both Israeli and Palestinian political leaders are unpopular and weak, raising questions about whether they can deliver on a peace plan that will anger both Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is still reeling from the mishandling of last summer's war in Lebanon. He is under several police investigations for corruption. His coalition government has two right wing parties threatening to quit if he makes concessions to the Palestinians. His hands are tied.

Israel's delegation includes Barak, now Olmert's defense minister, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Both have hinted at ambitions to be prime minister.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also weak. He is identified with corruption and failure and has little grassroots support. Extremists even accuse him of being a collaborator with Israel. He has lost half of the Palestinian territory to Hamas in Gaza. He is in desperate need of significant Israeli concessions to convince Palestinians his way is best. Failure could finish him.

Expectations about the summit have been lowered. The event is now described as a starting point for difficult negotiations. The serious business is meant to start after the meeting. Everyone wants the process to be concluded by the time President Bush leaves the White House.

A joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration has not been agreed upon despite weeks of haggling. This makes Bush's comments more important, particularly those on future borders, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.

An important element in the Annapolis meeting is the presence of foreign ministers from all Arab League states, which is an achievement. But that is a long way from an Arab endorsement of what happens at Annapolis.

Syria's attendance has been guaranteed in return for mention of the Golan Heights, although detailed sessions on the issue are not on the agenda.

Many Israelis believe significant progress with the Syrians is possible and the chances of success probably even greater than with the divided Palestinians.

The Arab states are interested in anything that can diminish the influence of Iran and they are, like the United States, eager to draw Syria away from the influence of Iran. And easing tensions between Israel and Syria could reduce Iran's power over both the Palestinian issue but Lebanon as well.

In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this morning I only heard pessimistic voices. There is so much skepticism. Israeli security is on its highest alert for suicide bombers. The Israeli right is mobilizing. Hamas will march in Gaza on Tuesday.

People are very afraid of the consequences of failure.

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