The Economist
December 3, 2007 - 4:18pm

THEY almost didn't make it, but in the last hour Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, agreed on a joint statement. Four months of preliminary talks had failed to produce what Mr Abbas and Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, had hoped to brandish at this week's peace summit in Annapolis: an agreement to predetermine some aspects of the final-status deal that would ultimately create a Palestinian state next to Israel. In the end, Ms Rice had to settle for less, but the Palestinians and Israelis did agree two things. Final-status talks will begin on December 12th. And the United States will monitor both sides' compliance in the meantime with the “road map” peace plan of 2003, under which Israel is meant to freeze settlement-building in the West Bank while the Palestinian Authority (PA) takes action against militants who attack Israel.

Both these agreements still lack some important detail, however. While teams of negotiators will work continuously to hammer out all the issues of a peace deal—the borders of the Palestinian state, the division of Jerusalem, the fate of 4.5m Palestinian refugees abroad, the sharing of water resources, and so on—nobody has specified whether the starting point will be a blank slate or a previous near-deal such as the informal 2001 Taba agreement negotiated in Egypt. That could make a big difference to how fast things progress. So too could the fact that there will be no American go-between for them.

Likewise, the United States has agreed to supervise both sides' compliance with the road map; a potential win for the Palestinians since in the past Israel has been the de facto arbiter of performance. But it is unclear how, and how strictly, America will actually do this. So far, it has only appointed a general, James Jones, as a security envoy to the PA. Much clearer is that Israel will not make his job easy. An Israeli official says that any impression that Mr Olmert plans a total construction freeze, as the road map stipulates, is a “convenient misperception”.

A more telling measure of Mr Olmert's intentions may be how vigorously he goes after the 100-plus “unauthorised” outposts established by hardline settlers, of which the road map requires him to dismantle around 60. Previous attempts to take even one down have led to violent clashes between the police and settlers, who are regrouping for a showdown after losing their fight to stay in the Gaza Strip in 2005. As for the Palestinians, the American arbitrator will find himself squeezed between the Israeli reading of the road map—that the PA must entirely dismantle terrorist groups before any final-status deal that the two sides reach can go into effect—and the Palestinian one, which is that it need only get the task well under way.

The two sides hope to conclude the final-status deal itself within a year. But given the complexity of the issues and the fragile politics on each side, this looks over-ambitious to some. Mr Olmert will have to keep conceding enough to keep the peace process going, but not so much that it prompts right-wing parties to leave his coalition. They have already started throwing out banana skins, such as a parliamentary bill earlier this month that would make it much harder for Israel to give up any of Jerusalem to the PA. Mr Abbas, for his part, having got much less out of Annapolis than he originally insisted on, is vulnerable to the jibes of Islamist opponents. His security forces have been cracking down with unusual harshness on anti-Annapolis demonstrations in the West Bank this week, something that could cost him precious legitimacy.

A coalition of the fearful

For a conference so thin on content, though, Annapolis was surprisingly thickly attended. Few expected Saudi Arabia to send its foreign minister, but there he was, along with 40 leaders, many from Islamic states without diplomatic ties with Israel. To what extent this is a victory for President George Bush, though, is also not yet clear.

One reason the Arabs showed up, as American officials argue, is because they may share Mr Bush's desire to create a united, mostly Sunni front against mostly Shia extremists led by Iran. Syria's decision to send its deputy foreign minister—less than a full negotiator, but more than just a token presence—in return for a merely token discussion at Annapolis about Syrian-Israeli peace may have signalled that Syria, too, is worried about ending up on the wrong side of the barricades. The show of solidarity certainly produced some alarmed noises from Tehran and fist waving from its Islamist allies, Lebanon's Hizbullah and the Palestinians' Hamas.

Yet the Saudis and others may also have come because they felt they had no choice. It would have been too easy for America to paint them as the cause of Annapolis's failure. With Lebanon fearing more civil conflict as it tries to break a deadlock over the election of a president, Syria's role is crucial; some, indeed, think its invitation to Annapolis is what has prevented Lebanon from exploding already. But Mr Bush offered Syria no concessions, instead giving it a clear rebuke in his speech with a reference to Lebanon's need for an election “free from outside interference and intimidation." The question now is whether America can convert the show of support it got at Annapolis into anything more substantial.


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