As Israeli and Palestinian leaders head to Annapolis, Maryland, on Tuesday to mark the first official return to peace negotiations after seven years of paralysis, both sides are lowering expectations, given the hopeless history of Middle East peacemaking.
From the 1991 Madrid conference, through the 1994 Oslo peace accords, to the 2000 Camp David summit, the peace process has lurched from crisis to crisis while the Palestinian territory on which a state is to be created has shrunk, truncated by Jewish settlements.
For some observers the Annapolis conference carries echoes of Camp David, where former US President Bill Clinton brought together the late Palestinian President Yassir Arafat and the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, to agree on a final settlement.
But the summit collapsed, giving way to years of bloodshed as the Palestinians launched an uprising and Israel responded by virtually destroying the Palestinian Authority, the entity that had been created under the Oslo accords.
Annapolis, in fact, is a far more humble peace-making effort than Camp David. Its objective is not to close a deal, but to resume political negotiations on the key issues separating the two sides. These include the borders of a Palestinian state, the security of Israel, the future of Arab East Jerusalem that Palestinians want as the capital of their future state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
No one knows when a deal might eventually be reached. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, says she hopes it will happen before the Bush administration leaves office in just over a year. But the Annapolis conference is not expected to set a firm deadline, amid Israeli resistance to a commitment.
Nor is the basis of the negotiations clear: will Annapolis, for example, ask the two sides to start talks from scratch or from where they left off in 2000?
There has been a flurry of initiatives since Camp David, initiatives that have advanced compromises all founded on a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and about 94 per cent of the West Bank, with the Palestinians compensated for the rest of the territory occupied in the 1967 Middle East war with land swaps.
This was the basis of the “Clinton parameters” issued by the former president as guidelines for the two sides after the failure of Camp David. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators also met in the Egyptian resort of Taba in January 2001, and tentatively agreed a more detailed blueprint of the Clinton parameters.
But none of the initiatives progressed. Instead, as Palestinian suicide attacks inside Israel eroded the Israeli peace camp, the Jewish state also fell under the spell of Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister, who rejected the concept of the exchange of land and the Oslo accords.
By 2002, Arab states alarmed at Mr Sharon’s policies and the continuing intifada gathered in Beirut to try to rescue the peace process by agreeing a Saudi peace initiative. They offered Israel normal ties with all Arab states if it withdrew from all territory occupied in 1967 and to a fair solution to the refugee problem.
The US ignored the plan and Israel rejected it. Mr Sharon, meanwhile, pushed ahead with a unilateral approach, withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005 while strengthening his hold on the West Bank. He also won US commitment that Israel should keep the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank in any future deal.
In the meantime, international efforts to revive peacemaking were continuing, culminating in 2003 with the internationally backed “road map” that was meant eventually to return the two sides to the political negotiations.
But the road map never got past the first phase, under which the Palestinians had to rein in violence and begin institution-building while Israel had to freeze expansion of Jewish settlements.
Four years after the road map, Annapolis will aim to condense the plan. Its objective is to move the parties to political negotiations while institution-building and security improvements advance in parallel.
In some ways, the Israelis and the Palestinians have come full circle, making Madrid 1991 the more fitting comparison with Annapolis. Madrid launched the peace process. It took place when the US was, like today, emerging from an Iraq conflict.
But if the march from Madrid was difficult, the road from Annapolis could prove harder. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have failed to agree even a general statement before the conference, let alone the declaration of principles or the framework agreement once touted as the main objective.
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