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November 26, 2007

Annapolis: What's at Stake

By: Bernard Chazelle

Ignore the wailing of the Cassandras: Annapolis will be a success. Mark my words: this week in Maryland will see President Bush set in motion the beginning of the first tentative steps toward an approach to a process aimed at a distant horizon that will in due course lead to a compromise pointing the way toward the initial conditions creating the possibility of a climate that will catalyze the development of a mood conducive to an environment propitious to a confidence-building set of measures whose momentum will carry us further on the path to...

neutering Iran.

Since Hamas will be watching the proceedings from afar, the only two points of agreement among the participants at the meeting will be the succulence of the cole slaw and the need to keep Iran from nuking up. Not that, mind you, anyone actually worries about being vaporized by Tehran: no one does. The issue is balance of power. A nuclear Iran would cement that country's status as an ascending regional superpower and, in doing so, shift the balance of power irreversibly away from the West. Repeat after me: Intolerable.

Of course, the four reasons for Iran's rise (Taliban, Saddam, Shia power, price of oil) can be traced directly to Bush's policies. Oddly, for a country that has not attacked anyone in hundreds of years, Iran has few friends. But it has oil, and it is acknowledged by China, India, and Russia as a key player in the new Great Game. The main objective of Annapolis thus is to lower the temperature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just enough to focus on Iran with none of the pesky distractions from the world's greatest outdoor prison: Gaza. A fake deal would give carte blanche to Arab powers (who don't give a fig about the Palestinians) to work with the US on an Iran containment policy (while Petraeus continues to need Iranian cooperation in Baghdad, military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities may have to wait).

How do I know that? Because there is nothing left to negotiate between Israel and the Palestinians. The outline of a two-state solution was agreed upon at Camp David 2000 and Taba 2001 and both sides know there is no other viable option for lasting peace. The only points left to iron out concern the difficult issues of land swap, water rights, refugees, East Jerusalem, etc, but the contours are known and the matter is essentially technical. Some problems in the world are inherently complex (Kashmir, the Sudan, etc). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not one of them: there is a consensus on both sides about its solution. The problem is not that the conflict cannot be solved: it is that none of the powers-that-be wants it solved.

And so it won't happen. Not in Annapolis. Not any time soon. But before we sink into terminal pessimism, here is a quick rundown of the cast of characters:

Bush: Promised Sharon in 2004 that a return to the 1967 borders was no longer in the cards (which places him outside the Taba consensus). A lame duck who's taken his marching orders from AIPAC for 7 years, why would he suddenly be willing to knock heads, as any progress would require at this point?

Abbas: Has tenuous control over the West Bank and none at all over Gaza. Any concession might be signing his death warrant - literally. He can promise but he can't deliver. He is Arafat in reverse: the Israelis love him but (and because) he has no power. In the last 2 years, the Israelis have increased the number of roadblocks in the West Bank (living hell for its residents) by 58% with nary a whisper from Abbas.

Olmert: Give the Israeli establishment this: they have a great sense of humor. Just as their PM is landing in the US, he will find out whether the police will recommend his indictment in a corruption scandal. Timing, timing. But the larger issue is that for the majority of Israelis (at least those not on the receiving end of Qassams in Sderot), the conflict is no more than an irritant. The Palestinians have finally been contained in their jail and the Israelis have found in Abbas a suitable quisling to keep the inmates from rattling their cages too loudly.

Palestinian terrorism is at an all-time low. The Israelis are in no rush. Plus, their political leaders are weak and in no position to make the hard choices needed to implement Taba. If anything, Iran is now a higher strategic priority for Israel. Israel might release 450 Palestinian prisoners (out of 10,000) but, before you pop the champagne, remember that in October alone it arrested 600 of them. Olmert might promise to remove the illegal outposts: yes, the same outposts that he's promised to remove for years.

Hamas: Their invitation letter got lost in the mail, so they'll be watching on CNN. While munching on Iranian pistachios, Ismail Haniyeh may wonder: Did any of these clowns really believe the Irish "Troubles" could have been settled with a handshake between Tony Blair and the mayor of Boston? To make matters worse, Israel has decided to begin cutting off power in Gaza (which Hamas controls) beginning Dec. 2. That's a "war crime," but only in international law, so no one cares. As such things always do, it will work to Hamas's advantage.

Syria: Without putting the Golan Heights on the table, Bush doesn't have a prayer to accomplish his cherished goal of creating a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. The presence of Syria's deputy foreign minister in Annapolis means only that Condi won't walk out when the word Golan is mentioned (and it will). She'll just pretend she didn't hear.

Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia: Pity their leaders. There is no humiliation they won't suffer with all the glee of certified masochists. None of the Arab League's conditions for participation will have been met (eg, freeze on settlements, refugee status, Jerusalem - zilch, nada). But who cares? These countries will send their foreign ministers (and not just the "deputy" kind) to lick Bush's Texan boots or any anatomical appendage if so ordered. The poodles of Pax Americana always say yes. Which is a shame because it is Saudi Arabia that formalized the only comprehensive normalization initiative ever with Israel: once in 2002 and then again in 2006. Bush nixed it.

What too many observers in the US fail to appreciate is how close to extinction the two-state solution has advanced. We are nearing the point of no return, after which only a binational state will remain viable. The growth in the settlements (nearly half a million strong, counting Jerusalem - a 100% increase since Oslo) makes a return to '67 increasingly unfeasible. People who never liked a two-state arrangement in the first place should be careful what they wish for: the road outside Taba does not lead to Switzerland. It leads to war and enduring apartheid.

Palestinians and Israelis are stuck with one another. Demographics is working fast against the Israeli side so the window of opportunity for peace is narrow. Time is of the essence. And yet Bush has done nothing for 7 years, while the lives of millions of Palestinians and Israelis hang in the balance. The fact is that Israel has proven utterly incapable of advancing the peace process without prodding from the US. But, instead of prodding, the US has done nothing but prop open the gates of hell since 2000. No photo-op in Annapolis and no lucrative arms deals with the Saudis to contain Iran will change that.

Posted at November 26, 2007 10:52 AM

Iran has few friends? I guess if you except Russia, India, China, commercial contacts in Europe, all its bordering states: Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan, and the odd places like Syria and Venezuela, that might be true. Of course then you'd be excepting about half the world's population, which not incidentally is the half where the US has its biggest problems.

Posted by: Don Bacon at November 26, 2007 11:59 AM

Fill 'er up and let the good times roll.( WE need to stop paying these people, ALL of them)(one word---hydrogen)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 26, 2007 01:40 PM

AS far as OUR world leaders---there is NO CURE, no pill, for stupid or asshole that leaves the patient alive or functional.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 26, 2007 01:50 PM

Whoever started calling Iran a "rising regional superpower". If you concede that Iran's reach is only regional, why call it a superpower? And even regionally it is hard to envision Iran dominating its neighbors, with the possible exception of Iraq, either economically or militarily.
So either regionally in this context means on it's own territory or the inventor wanted to insinuate that Iran is the next Nazi Germany.

Posted by: generic at November 26, 2007 02:39 PM

Don: I beg to disagree. Moscow supported Saddam and India voted against Iran to refer it to the UNSC. (China and Russia abstained.)
None of these countries wants Iran to get nukes.
On the other hand, they don't want to hand over a victory to the US in that strategic part of the world and they need to do business with Iran.

Generic: Call it "the dominant regional power" if you prefer. I have no problem with that.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at November 26, 2007 09:26 PM

Nice synopsis, Bernard.

Too bad it's such a sorry story. Unless, of course, the narrative is delivered by way of network news, in which case it sounds no less a tragic-but-courageous tale than The Unitary Executive's other bold, ambitious, benevolent undertakings.

Posted by: Arvin Hill at November 27, 2007 02:20 AM

steveB: Dennis Ross is often mentioned as the top candidate to run mideast policy in a democratic administration...

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at November 27, 2007 11:18 AM

Dennis Ross proves my point that Israelis no longer feel urgency about the matter and think that as long as in "peace process" we focus on process and not peace everything will be fine.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at November 27, 2007 11:34 AM

Didn't one Israeli Prime Minister tell Arafat that he loved the "Peace Process" so much that he wanted it to "go on forever"?

I don't think it was Sharon.

Posted by: SteveB at November 27, 2007 12:46 PM