Osama Al Sharif
Gulf News (Special Report)
December 3, 2007 - 4:23pm

Sixteen years is a long time in politics. But that is the gap that now separates the Madrid Middle East peace conference, called for by President George Bush Sr and the Annapolis meeting, which convened last week under the patronage of his son.

To underline the size of the gap between the two events one is reminded that all the key players have changed; passed on or retired. The world has evolved dramatically and the core issue of the conflict in the Middle East has become even more complicated.

Like his father before him, George Bush Jr has become embroiled in the Middle East; invading Iraq and waging a tedious war in Afghanistan. Initially his administration wanted to avoid any mix-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As a result of America's reluctance and indifference the Palestinians lost most of the gains they had made as a result of Madrid and the Oslo process. Today most of the damage the Bush administration is hoping to repair took place during its watch.

As Bush winds up his second and final term in the White House, his administration is seeking to re-engage itself in the peace process. Its motives are ambiguous and its chances of making a breakthrough are slim. The stakes are high and the price of failure is looming large.

But unlike Madrid the Annapolis meeting was short on expectations. After all the pomp and ceremony it is now left to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Bush, and their aides, to handle the tough issues that had bogged down the peace process for over seven years.

Weak and bruised

Ironically, the success or failure of Annapolis lies more with the level of commitment, the degree of resolve and the depth of passion that the Bush administration will put on in its waning months rather than on the two embattled parties to the conflict.

Unlike Yasser Arafat, Abbas arrived in Maryland a weak and bruised leader of the divided Palestinians. And Olmert, who is fighting for his political life, knows he does not enjoy the influence or charisma of Yitzhak Rabin.

Syria showed up because the meeting offered it a chance to come out of its long isolation. The Saudis attended to defend their Arab peace initiative. Jordan and Egypt went there because they have strategic stakes in a successful outcome of the negotiations.

The Europeans came because under Bush they have been sidelined and prevented from playing an active role in a region so close and vital to them. The rest flew to Annapolis because America wanted them there.

But while pundits around the world have downplayed the success of Annapolis in launching a genuine process that will end 60 years of conflict and give birth to a Palestinian state, there is still hope that Washington will dig deep this time to create such momentum.

Bush needs to succeed and although facts on the ground have complicated the issues to unprecedented levels, the terms of reference and the benchmarks remain, to a great extent, unchallenged.

By the same token, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians also need to achieve something. A failure will make Abbas irrelevant as a leader and it is a matter of time before internal challenges will either unseat him or force him to retire.

Olmert and his party are also at a crossroad and a collapse of talks with the moderate Palestinians will give the right-wing parties of Israel the opportunity to clinch power.

But with time running out for all, a historic deal on the final status issues such as occupied Jerusalem, the colonies and the right of return, is an almost impossible mission to accomplish.

Added to that is the fact that America is busy trying to pacify Iraq, subdue the Taliban and contain the Iranians. Bush is also engaged in political arm-wrestling with a Democratically-led Congress.

He faces challenges over war funding and other domestic policies. In a few weeks the race for the White House will officially kick off and Bush will have to think of his party's chances. His hands, it is assumed, will be tied.

Failure will also strengthen the hands of the radical forces in the Middle East such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and others across a troubled region.

Total failure will have long-term effects on America's standing and influence among its allies and friends in the Middle East. Annapolis could become a watershed for the beginning of America's regression in this region.

Osama Al Sharif is a Jordanian journalist based in Amman.


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