Pessimism is always the safe option when contemplating the chances of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Expectations are certainly extremely low ahead of the international meeting in Annapolis in the US on Tuesday.
The Palestinian side is fragmented; the Israelis are wary; the Americans are distracted; the Arabs are sceptical. It is nice that the Brazilians and Senegalese are sending delegations. But it might be more useful if the Iranians or Hamas were in attendance.
Some argue that the Annapolis agenda is so limited – and the chances of success are so feeble – that it would be better if there were no peace conference at all. Recent history suggests that failed peace efforts are swiftly followed by an upsurge in violence. But giving up on the chances of a peace deal is unacceptable. For humanitarian and strategic reasons, the Bush administration is right to try again.
However, if Annapolis is to confound the sceptics, three things need to be done. First, the Americans, as the hosts of the conference, should insist on sticking closely to the principles already agreed in previous peace efforts. There should be a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders – and involving land swaps between the two sides, which will allow Israel to keep some West Bank settlements. There must be a freeze on building new settlements. The issues of Jerusalem and refugees must be put on the table. Ultimately, the Palestinians will have to accept that refugees will return only to a new Palestinian state, not to any Israeli territory. The Israelis will have to concede that Jerusalem will be divided.
Second, there must be a deadline set for the talks. Allowing the discussions to meander on for ever is a formula for failure. The most plausible deadline is to strive for an agreement by the end of the Bush administration. Since George W. Bush is not running for re-election, he can take some risks.
Finally, the Americans must keep up the momentum after Annapolis. If they are to achieve a peace agreement, they will need to be engaged with both sides on an almost daily basis. Tony Blair could perform a useful role as an intermediary.
At some point, all sides will have to acknowledge that the radicals of Hamas – currently in control of the Gaza strip – will have to be brought into the process. But the role of Hamas is an issue for later. If Monday’s meeting can restart the peace process and persuade the cynics to give it a chance, it will have performed a vital function. You have to start somewhere – and Annapolis is as good a place as any.
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