Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
November 19, 2007 - 4:20pm

I would like to invest hope in the Annapolis Middle East peace conference, or meeting, or parley, or whatever the term is. Really, I would. The 59-year battle for the same land of Zionist and Palestinian national movements has not been good for anyone.

I’d like to feel hopeful although no firm date has been set, and it’s not clear who’s coming, and it’s six years too late, and Israel has chosen to lure tourists for its 60th anniversary next year with a photo of an Israeli “cowboy” on a Golan Heights ranch, which hardly seems the ad campaign of a country about to trade land for peace.

I don’t want to despair although Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, is beset by criminal investigations, and President Bush is forlorn, and the only man who makes both these leaders look powerful is the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who controls only the West Bank wing of his national movement.

Hopelessness is no option although the current “West Bank first” strategy comes just two years after a “Gaza first” approach. This had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declaring in 2005 how critical it was to “seize the moment” — before the moment evaporated and Hamas grabbed control of Gaza.

Remember all the faith placed in Gaza and its greenhouses, all the talk of a “trial run” for Palestinian statehood after Israel’s withdrawal? Remember the way Palestinian elections were talked up? It’s not good to remember. There’s too much memory in the Middle East, too many graves. They get in the way.

Eyes to the future, I refuse to allow the latest fighting in Gaza between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah to make me despondent, even when Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, tells me in a phone call that: “Without unification of the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas cannot represent the Palestinian side at Annapolis.”

Zahar, a doctor, predicts the get-together in Annapolis, Md., will be “a unique example of failure.” He counters my inquiries about a Hamas recognition of Israel with three questions:

“First, what is the border of Israel? And what happens to Jerusalem? And what happens to Palestinian refugees in the camps?”

Here we go — the old conundrums. Hamas cannot be ignored forever. But I console myself that the Annapolis meeting, tentatively planned for Nov. 26, is not about a peace settlement. It is about setting a framework for talks, defining principles, rallying regional support.

Perhaps the Saudis, under heavy U.S. pressure, will show up, although they are so risk-averse and have staked so much on Palestinian unity, I doubt King Abdullah will. Perhaps the Syrians will ignore Golan cowboy ads and appear, but I wonder. Perhaps fear of Iran will lead Sunni Arab states to show public support for Israel. Perhaps.

Still, despair is a nonstarter, even if a minister in Olmert’s government is already voting for legislation to block any eventual division of Jerusalem. So what if Annapolis looks like Rice’s transparent, last-gasp bid for a “legacy achievement”?

What matters are the two peoples. But even basic principles are problematic. One core demand of Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, is for up-front Palestinian recognition of Israel “as a Jewish state.” But Saeb Erekat, a moderate Palestinian negotiator, has said that “Palestinians will never acknowledge Israel’s Jewish identity.”

Livni wants clarity on the Jewish character of Israel, which has a large Arab minority, as quid pro quo for recognition of Palestine and as insurance against mass Palestinian return.

She’s right to want this; she’s wrong to push for the principle now. Why should Palestinians offer anything when the West Bank is a shameful place offering a primer on colonialism and Israeli settlements have grown almost unabated? Nascent Palestine is in pieces, invisible behind a reassuring fence-wall.

While the Bush administration looked away, Israelis and Palestinians lost sight of each other. Perhaps, in the end, the only way to stave off hopelessness is to think that at least Annapolis will enable them to commit to seeing each other more. They can set up working groups, renounce violence, set deadlines.

All the “final-status issues” — Jerusalem, borders, refugees, settlements, water and security — will have to be left for later. Even protracted attempts to frame the principles for discussion of these matters have failed.

“The best we can hope for is an agenda of conflict management and not have illusions of conflict resolution,” said Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli political scientist.

More than 200,000 Israeli settlers, the jihadist infiltration of the conflict and the deep split in the Palestinian movement have created physical and mental barriers even a strong U.S. president would find hard to shift. Bush is weak.

Hope is a shrinking refuge. Annapolis looks like a looming photo-op. Even photo-up-plus would be something at this stage.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017