The ink on the joint Israeli-Palestinian understanding is dry, the delegates have gone home, and the streets of Annapolis are no longer crowded with diplomatic security details. After Annapolis, everyone is asking: what next?
Even before the sessions began, pundits on the left and right flashed their skepticism in editorials and commentary. Extremists on the fringes – Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians alike – took to their streets to protest a meeting aimed at jumpstarting the peace process. With such cynicism and downright opposition, the safe bet was on Annapolis achieving nothing. The meeting seemed doomed, its legs ready to snap from the attacking and pointed intellectual arguments made by sharp analysts for whom critique is stock in trade. There was equally vociferous opposition from radicals who have killed brave leaders, and used violence to terrorize the silent majorities, to intimidate those who support a two-state solution.
As the dust settles from this week s flurry of meetings, it is worth taking a deep breath, standing back, and looking at the big picture. Three tasks are essential at this early stage.
1. Take stock. First, we should assess what happened. With only three weeks left in 2007, it s amazing to see where things stand compared to where they were just last year. Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, have been meeting regularly for months, developing an ability to communicate genuinely, beyond the stiff pleasantries of diplomatic protocol. This developing relationship lays the foundation for a new, albeit narrow, opening for progress. The joint statement read aloud by President Bush laid out specific commitments and set a goal for reaching a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues by the end of 2008. Although much work remains ahead, this statement presents an opportunity for those supporting a sustainable and enduring Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Annapolis also helped gain ground beyond the Israeli-Palestinian track. Naysayers aside, assembling such an inclusive group from this troubled region was no small task. After years of seeking to isolate Syria, the United States shifted its approach by inviting it to join the party.
Israel s growing recognition of the import of the Arab Initiative is notable, too. Prime Minister Olmert spoke of it as born in Riyadh, affirmed in Beirut and recently reaffirmed by you in Riyadh, and said he value[d] this initiative, acknowledge[d] its importance and highly appreciate[d] its contribution. He went on to note that [t]he Arab world represented here by many countries is a vital component in creating a new reality in the Middle East.
Getting countries like Saudi Arabia – which faces a domestic constituency that includes some of the most conservative and extremist opponents to the peace process – was not simple. Though inclusiveness and broader participation is largely symbolic, symbolism matters too, particularly at the early stages of a restarted peace process.
2. Acknowledge the challenges. A real opening was achieved this past week, and the next step is to embrace the challenges ahead, acknowledging the difficulty of these tasks To move forward, the issues must be acknowledged. This is also important for holding all sides accountable to the their commitments.
The tasks are considerable for both Israelis and Palestinians on the security front. Palestinians face a major challenge in achieving political consolidation that can serve as a foundation for stability and prosperity. They will need a great deal of outside help to re-establish law and order, disband independent militias, and prevent rockets from being fired into Israeli territory. Gaza presents particular challenges after Hamas violent coup in June. The international community must address the humanitarian implications facing the 1.5 million Gazans as a result of this lack of security and a stifled economy. Israeli and Palestinian authorities must work together to reduce the barriers that impede trade, goods, and humanitarian aid. Israel must also freeze settlement activity, remove illegal settlement outposts, and prepare to relocate settlers as borders are determined in final status negotiations. Finally, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders must prepare their publics for some difficult compromises on the toughest issues – including refugees, Jersualem, final borders, and settlements.
3. Make a plan to meet the challenges. The Annapolis joint understanding sets out a goal of getting all of this done by 2008. That s a pretty tall order. But timelines and goals like this have a way of focusing attention and motivating parties to get things done. In addition to the joint declaration, this past week s meetings produced a new effort to monitor the security situation and develop a more sustainable security framework-a good sign of which is the appointment of widely-respected and politically skilled General Jim Jones, with a broad mandate to deal with security issues bilaterally and regionally. It also shows that the United States is committed to achieving progress on this key front. A number of follow-up meetings are planned (including an international donors conference on December 17), a potential follow-up meeting in Russia, and more sessions of the Middle East Quartet, which should strategically engage the Arab Follow Up Committee, whose involvement and support proved valuable at Annapolis.
In the wake of Annapolis, a more complete set of ingredients are available for achieving Middle East progress; there is no shortage of tools and mechanisms for getting things done. But brave leadership is needed to assemble these different elements in an inclusive process, to forge pragmatically ahead on a difficult landscape.
After Annapolis, those interested in reviving the Middle East peace process face a fundamental choice: either roll up your sleeves and help leaders move the process forward, or continue offering up Monday morning quarterback analyses that do little to advance the cause.
After seven difficult years in the Middle East, cynicism and nay-saying is understandable, but going overboard with skepticism leaves us nowhere. The alternative to the Annapolis formula? A centre that literally does not hold, a growing security vacuum, pragmatists with nothing to show for their willingness to negotiate, extremists prevailing on both sides. This alternative damages US, Israeli, Palestinian, and regional interests, making life no better for the people impacted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We choose the Annapolis route, bumpy as it may be.
Mara Rudman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she focuses on national security issues and advises Middle East Progress. She is also President of Quorum Strategies, an international strategic consulting firm. Brian Katulis is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work examines US national security policy in the Middle East with a focus on Iraq. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.