Shlomo Avineri
December 13, 2007 - 1:07pm

All that the participants in the Annapolis conference agreed upon was to begin negotiations on several parallel channels. It is clear the results will depend, to a large extent, on the United States' ability to navigate these moves. In this context, it is worth trying to recall where in the past the U.S. was successful in its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, and where it failed.

From the point of view of processes and events from past decades, the U.S. is successful in the Middle East if one of two scenarios is in place. When lacking, the U.S. fails.

The first scenario is when a real state of war exists and the U.S. attempts to stop it, to restrain it or to to prevent it from spilling over into a regional conflict. In such situations, the Americans use their force in a concentrated fashion, for a short period and with a defined objective that can be immediately achieved. That is what happened toward the end of the Yom Kippur War, after the Israel Defense Forces crossed the Suez Canal, surrounded Egypt's Third Army and stopped 101 kilometers from the road to Cairo; it was sufficient for Washington to send a few sharp messages; Israel then held back its troops. In this way, the total collapse of the Egyptian alignment was prevented and a cease-fire was imposed.

In the first Lebanon War, in 1982, the U.S. prevented the IDF from invading Muslim West Beirut after the assassination of the pro-Israeli president elect, Bashir Gemayel, at the hands of the Syrians. This move was likely to have brought about direct Syrian intervention in the war, and it sufficed for then-president Ronald Reagan to make a few sharp telephone calls to then-prime minister Menachem Begin to prevent a move of this kind on Israel's part.

During the First Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. did not permit Israel to attack targets inside Iraq after the Americans failed to prevent the firing of Iraqi missiles at Israel. The U.S. feared a move of this kind would break up the anti-Iraq coalition and its refusal to give the Israeli air force the necessary codes prevented the possibility of the action.

In every one of these instances, the U.S. took firm steps designed to prevent or restrain military actions. It was clear within a few hours whether Israel was responding to the American demands or not. In situations of this kind, the U.S.'s strength is, indeed, at a premium.

The second scenario in which the U.S. has a possibility of succeeding is the reverse of the first: The two Middle East sides are in the throes of negotiations, they have made the most of the mutual concessions and paid the necessary internal political prices, but a number of issues remain in which they are having difficulty arriving at a compromise. In cases like these, the U.S. can serve as a mediator, using its power to persuade both sides. Some examples: At the Camp David talks that were initiated by then-president Jimmy Carter, where most of the problems on the agenda had been solved in the talks between Israel and Egypt; the invitation to Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to come to the White House in 1993 in order to summarize unresolved issues that later made it possible, after the visit of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, for Egypt and Israel to hold bilateral negotiations for about a year, without American aid, in which most of the problems that had been on the agenda were resolved. There were a few remaining issues on which Sadat and Begin could not reach agreement. The summoning of the two leaders to Camp David by president Jimmy Carter created the necessary background for negotiations over the Olso Accords. In 1993, Israel and the PLO reached agreement about mutual recognition and autonomy, but there remained several unresolved problems. Then-president Bill Clinton's initiative made it possible to resolve these problems. In this scenario also, the moves described had a limited time span and they were taken after most of the negotiations had been completed before hand on a bilateral plane. All the American president did was push the two sides to find a compromise.

When neither of these scenarios exists - when no war is raging, when the sides do not have the political desire to reach an agreement and when there is an attempt to arrive at an agreement that will be spread over several years - America merely draws a blank. Examples: At Camp David In 2000, there was a lack of political desire on at least one side and in this way, the president, Bill Clinton, was not able to bring about an agreement; President George Bush's road map did not lead anywhere, despite the verbal declarations made by the two sides, because of a lack of political desire.

Among the many possibilities described above, where does Annapolis find itself? Somewhere in the middle. At present it is clear that both sides (if we ignore the serious problem of Hamas control in Gaza) have the political desire to conduct real negotiations and to lower the flames. What is less clear is whether they have the political capability to reach agreements with regard to core issues. It appears they do not.

It is clear that Bush can clear the way for a dramatic event of the kind seen at Annapolis, but he does not have the ability to keep up a daily check of dozens of discussions and issues raised during negotiations in various work groups. When presidential power is lacking, it is hard to imagine Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or another American official, will be able to bring one of the sides to make significant concessions on subjects perceived as existential: Palestinian recognition of the legitimacy of Israel's existence as a Jewish national state, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees.

Analyzing the past does not mean that, in the future, things will not work out differently. But as in other similar cases - Cyprus, Kosovo, Bosnia - America's strength is limited when the local political desire and the political capability are missing. This means that, despite all the media brouhaha, Annapolis apparently will not lead to conflict resolution. The conference will serve as a tool to solving some of the many problems between us and the Palestinians, and in this way, to contribute toward making the conflict more moderated.

The writer was the director general of the Foreign Ministry during Yitzhak Rabin's first government.


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