Analysis: Risks Are Great at Annapolis Conference

Perhaps the most important development we’ll see from this Israeli-Palestinian peace conference being held in Annapolis, Md., happened before the conference started. It came from Syria. The announcement that Syria planned to send a representative shows the nation is willing to break step with its only strong ally, Iran.

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Standing with the Arab League and the Arab nations that have elected to attend, Syria lends credibility to the outcome as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party. The decision puts Syria on the side of the moderates and leaves Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran out in the cold, denouncing the conference.

The outcome itself will not be dramatic. The goal at the end of the conference is a joint declaration from Israelis and Palestinians — a piece of paper, not peace.

Everyone talks about the two-state solution. However, as the facts stand today, a Palestinian state is not an attainable goal. The Palestinian territories are divided between the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip and the West Bank, where Abbas’ Fatah party maintains a weak hold.

The West Bank is so dotted with Israeli settlements, the map doesn’t even look like Swiss cheese; it looks like blue cheese. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is still too weak politically to pull out from the West Bank. Considering the last pullout left the world with a Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, where a kidnapped Israeli soldier still resides and from which Qassam rockets fly every day, Olmert is not going to attempt a West Bank pullout anytime soon.

Politicians could spend the whole conference talking about a Palestinian state, but no one could draw even a hypothetical one on a map.

What you need to watch during the conference is this rhetorical question: How far will Olmert go?

On one hand, he needs to ensure that Abbas comes away from this conference with some sort of concrete result that improves daily life for Palestinians and takes them a step closer to statehood. If he doesn’t, Hamas leaders will exploit that and tell their constituents, “That’s what you get for being a moderate: nothing.”

If it is considered a failure, this conference will strengthen Hamas. (It is in the political interest of Hamas to call it a failure, regardless of the outcome. Hamas leader Ismayel Haniya has already declared the conference “stillborn.”)

On the other hand, Olmert hangs on to power because he has made allies in the Knesset from both the right and the left. If he gives too much to the Palestinians, the far right parties Yisrael Betenu and Shas will walk out of his coalition, and Olmert will lose his majority in Parliament. Benjamin Netanyahu is waiting in the wings to topple Olmert’s government and reclaim the prime minister’s office for himself.

Yisrael Betenu and Shas already have drawn their red lines and forbidden the prime minister from discussing any of the “core issues”: how to divide Jerusalem; what the final borders of a state will look like; and what are the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees in the territories and around the world.

So, trying to satisfy the right, Olmert will want the joint declaration to be as vague as possible. Abbas, however, wants it all: a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Abbas knows he’s not going to get it, so he is forced to lower his expectations to what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has termed a “Political Horizon.” That means showing the Palestinians the dream of statehood is waiting for them like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if they follow the right path and take the right steps. That brings the whole matter back to a discussion of the 2002, U.S.-sponsored Roadmap for Peace.

Thus far, the road map has proved to be nothing more than words on paper. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have made the first step on the road map. Now, years later, neither can.

The first step for Palestinians was to disarm and dismantle the militant groups. Abbas never attempted that, fearing a civil war. Ultimately he got a civil war in the Gaza Strip, where the better-armed and more-motivated Hamas fighters made easy work of vanquishing the Fatah security forces.

Abbas lost the Gaza Strip and he doesn’t stand a chance of disarming Hamas now. The first step for Israel is to dismantle the illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank and stop all new settlement construction. If Olmert takes that step, the right will walk from his coalition and he will join the long list of Israeli prime ministers forced out of office before the end of their terms.

The risks are great. The rewards come simply from the politicians talking again, especially now that Syria is participating. Olmert and Rice have framed this conference as a springboard toward future negotiations. At the outset, the conference has succeeded in marginalizing Hamas and bolstering the image of President Abbas as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. However, if he comes away with nothing, he’ll be perceived as the weakling who bowed to Israel and the West.