It's not time for Annapolis
Israel and the Palestinian Authority, together with the U.S., the European Union and several Arab countries are gearing up for a conference in Annapolis which may well provide the last opportunity for a reasonable and peaceful resolution of the festering conflict in Palestine in the near future.
Israel in particular is making major efforts to lower expectations ahead of the talks, mainly to avoid serious squabbles within PM Ehud Olmert's unraveling governing coalition.
Olmert, who has somewhat moderated his previously relatively hardline positions, largely as a result of several one-on-one meetings with Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas, is tied down by rightist coalition partners acutely aware of the PM's poor public standing and shaky position as long as he remains the subject of several criminal investigations.
Surprisingly enough, even Olmert's senior left-of-center coalition partner (and usually a mainstay of any peace process), the Labor party headed by former PM and present Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, has done little to press towards a negotiated solution at this time. Barak feels that as long as an efficient defensive system to counter Palestinian Kassam missiles is not in place, Israel should not consider concessions. Without those very concessions the Annapolis summit will be doomed to fail.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority, quite reasonably, is trying to emphasize the urgency of dealing with major core issues of territorial compromise, the right of return and the status of Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, President Abbas lacks authority and his weak leadership bodes ill for his ability to implement any future commitment by the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas, uninvited but ever present, is waiting for the Annapolis summit as well. A failure of the conference would play into the hands of the Hamas radicals that took over the Gaza Strip in a violent coup some months ago, confirming their stance that negotiations with Israel are a waste of time.
If the outcome of the Annapolis conference is so fraught with danger, one can reasonably ask, then why go to the conference in the first place?
After all, Middle East experts from all political persuasions pretty much agree that this one is set up for failure.
The main reason is that the U.S. administration is trying to clock up some kind of success in the Middle East. With Iraq unraveling and the crisis with Iran heating up, Washington needs to shore up the moderate Sunni regimes in the area.
The way to do this is to try to work on a resolution of the Palestinian issue for all its, worth no matter what the chances for success are.
A failure at Annapolis would likely mean the end of the two-state solution as we know it. It would tie Israel down in its brutal occupation of Palestine for years to come and it would give a huge boost to all the Islamic radicals who have always held that Israel can only be dealt with by force.
And it would condemn the Palestinians in the territories to continued misery and deny them many human rights.
Camp David in the year 2000 was convened under similar pressure. Then it was Israeli PM Ehud Barak who pushed for the summit and President Clinton let himself be dragged along.
Arafat repeatedly said that he wasn't ready yet but he was basically forced to attend. We all now what happened at Camp David and in its aftermath.
Let's not rush again into a disaster waiting to happen, let's prepare the Annapolis conference carefully. First help the Palestinians get their house in order, wait until Olmert has either stabilized his government or has been replaced and let Tony Blair, the EU's Middle East envoy, work the same magic that did the job in Northern Ireland.
It took him quite a while there to. And all those who think it can be done without talking to Hamas had better think again.
The writer is a retired Israeli diplomat who served in Southeast Asia from 2000-2003.