Ulrike Putz And Gregor Peter Schmitz
Der Spiegel
November 30, 2007 - 5:45pm

It was an elegant setting for the luncheon hosted by the Israel Project one week ago. Guests at the National Press Club in Washington picked at salmon on a bed of salad, forks clinked gently against plates. The hostess spoke quietly of peace and understanding.

But then David Wurmser showed up.

For four years, Wurmser was US Vice President Dick Cheney's Middle East advisor. And he is not at all convinced that the region deserves the world's attention. "It is absurd," he said to general astonishment, "that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contributes to the ozone hole by jetting across the world to bring peace to the Israelis and Palestinians." There are, he went on, much more important challenges, like North Korea, Iran, China, energy policy, Moscow, Japan....

The list seemed endless. "For me, the conflict is way down on the priority list," Wurmser said. "To attach so much importance to it sends the wrong signal."

All Domestically Weak

Wurmser is no longer with the government, having left this year to start his own consulting firm. He attended and spoke at last week's event as a civilian. Still, his comments are telling; they mirror exactly the friction generated by the Annapolis conference within the Bush Administration.

Officially the United States is the proud host, welcoming high-ranking representatives from 49 countries and organizations to the summit with the intention of exploring possible paths to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The countries represented even include Saudi Arabia and Syria, neither of which was present at the last major US negotiation initiative, Bill Clinton's 2000 Camp David summit. All the parties are meeting on Tuesday on the premises of the picturesque Annapolis Naval Academy in the state of Maryland, where a banner in one room features the encouraging motto: "Don't give up the ship!"

But even before the first speech was held at the conference, many observers had already abandoned any hope of significant progress. "All the participants have the fear of failure on their minds rather than the hope of success," Tamara Cofman Wittes from the Brookings Institution told SPIEGEL ONLINE, adding that the key protagonists -- US President George W. Bush, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert -- are all very weak domestically.

Help Against Iran

Shmuel Rosner, US correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is not even impressed by the fact that the Arab states are attending. "This whole meeting tells us much more about the host than about the guests," he says.

And the host appears to be moody. Large parts of Bush's team seem to have very little desire to work hard to make Annapolis a success -- already apparent from the disastrous preparation. The mega-conference was not officially confirmed until the beginning of last week, forcing delegations to hurriedly amend their hotel bookings. Briefings with reporters were arranged with just a few minutes' notice -- and clashed with the US-wide travel chaos caused by the Thanksgiving holiday.

Why the half-heartedness? In the White House, the Annapolis conference is increasingly regarded as an admission of weakness, especially in the influential circle surrounding Dick Cheney and the neo-cons. They grudgingly accept that a stronger US engagement for peace in the Middle East is probably the price that has to be paid for more help against an increasingly powerful Iran.

Important US allies such as Saudi Arabia have given clear signals in recent months that they want support in mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians. "The conference is also a product of the changed balance of power in the region," says Wittes. The official line in Washington is that such pragmatic considerations have no effect on the US's Middle East policy and that Annapolis is much more about finding a new start for real peace talks. But few in the Middle East would believe that the US government could be so altruistic. "It is good that the negotiating process is back on track," says Wittes. "But it's not good that it is being exploited for other political aims."


Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian Information Minister until June, sees little more than a glimmer of hope in the peace conference. "The US was mainly put under pressure by the Saudis to do something," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But the outcome was totally unsatisfactory, he said. The Annapolis conference was poorly prepared and the hectic organization that went into it belied a lack of substance, said Barghouti. "A lot is being done here so that no one notices that nothing is being done."

'A Photo Opportunity'

Israeli politics professor Menachem Klein, who was in Camp David in 2000 as an adviser to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, sees Annapolis largely as an instrument for US interests. "In part it's pure PR, pure marketing. By holding the talks, the US is trying to improve its image in the Middle East," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He said the fact that Condoleezza Rice doesn't have the full support of the White House is a problem. "The president doesn't fully support the conference," said Klein. "It's a photo opportunity."

That view is supported by the fact that the US didn't even push for a coherent basic agenda for the conference. That reflects a rift in the US administration which is likely to persist throughout the final phase of Bush's presidency. On the one hand, Rice is determined to embellish the government's foreign policy legacy with a Middle East deal. On the other hand one has a president who placed promoting democracy in this region at the heart of his agenda -- but who was only rarely prepared to engage in arduous negotiations to achieve that goal.


Bush has often met representatives of Middle Eastern states. But his initiatives were mostly limited to keynote speeches including a speech in the summer of 2002 when he signalled his backing for a Palestinian state. Or his speech last July when he announced the Annapolis conference.

That's not enough to make real progress. "Mideast peace needs to be painstakingly set up," Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told AP. "Making a statement is one thing, but cajoling, prodding and nudging are just as important."

It's unlikely that Bush will show more personal involvement at Annapolis than he has so far. And there is a simple reason for that -- Bill Clinton used that approach in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to crown his presidency with a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David in 2000.

Bush still wants to distance himself from the more diplomatic foreign policy of his predecessor. So his National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley announced before the start of the conference that the president would not be exerting personal pressure on the negotiating partners. It was up to them to reach a settlement, he said.

Step-by-Step Diplomacy

The result, not surprisingly, is that Condoleezza Rice's responsibility is growing. But she, too, has undergone an interesting change. When she became Bush's national security advisor after he entered office in 2001, she was considered more of a cool pragmatist than a fiery ideologue. But since then, she has become surprisingly comfortable with Bush's neoconservative rhetoric -- possibly in an attempt not to jeopardize her close relationship to the president. Now, though, she seems to be returning to her roots in step-by-step diplomacy.

Of course, it's not inconceivable that progress gets made during Bush's presidency. And even in Annapolis, there could be small advances --- for instance, in relations with Syria.

The Arab country has, after much hesitation, decided to send its foreign minister to Washington -- primarily to influence a possible discussion on the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. "One result could be that Syria begins to distance itself from its role of spoilsport in the region," says Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution. In addition, the other participants could "encourage Syria to rethink its position on Iran." After all, the US is granting Syria the option of renouncing its membership in the "Axis of Evil." Participation in the Annapolis conference shows that Damascus hasn't completely rejected the idea.


One thing is clear, however: Even if there were to be a rapprochement in such questions, it would mean nothing if no clear direction is set for further negotiations in the Middle East. Between the Israelis and Palestinians, there are already more than enough thorny issues to be solved. The borders of Palestine, security guarantees for Israel, the fate of the Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem. What if no concrete results at all come out of Annapolis?

"A conference that withers away once the TV cameras leave Annapolis could be worse than no conference at all," writes the New York Times.

Dennis Ross, chief negotiator on the Middle East under Bill Clinton, sees tough times ahead for Secretary of State Rice. "This president will never be like Clinton," he said in a talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He will never know the issues, he will never throw himself into it and so it is up to her [Secretary Rice]. If she wants to do this she has to take on that kind of a burden. I think she has the backing of the president. I do not think he has the kind of interest in this issue. His preoccupation is elsewhere. It is with Iraq. It is not on this issue."


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