On Ability And Responsibility

When the Bush administration first proposed holding a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, some months ago, the idea was greeted with almost universal skepticism. Op-ed writers mocked the key participants—U.S. President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—for their political weakness. Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, aware of past failures, were wary. Even the protagonists seemed ambivalent. During the conference last week, the three leaders seemed to be hedging their bets rather than announcing anything groundbreaking.

Olmert and Abbas, in a joint statement read by Bush, pledged to "make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008" on all outstanding issues separating the Israelis from the Palestinians. Yet when Abbas laid out his proposals for such a deal, Olmert and Bush avoided addressing them, sticking to nice words about "ending the occupation" and establishing "a new nation, a democratic Palestinian state."

That idea—Palestinian statehood—seems as far from reality today as it ever has. Yet it would be wrong, or at least too early, to portray Annapolis as a useless photo op. More than anything, it served as a reminder of how much power and prominence the United States still has in the Middle East. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have shown that laments about America's decline and the rise of Iran as the regional mover and shaker are premature. When Washington decided to hold a Middle East peace conference, the entire world came calling. Saudi Arabia led a 12-member contingent of Arab foreign ministers to Annapolis. Even Syria, Iran's key ally, agreed to show up in the end.

During his seven years in office, President Bush has been criticized repeatedly for neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially compared with the enthusiastic efforts of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. In changing course now, Bush argued that the time was finally right, citing the urgency of regional tensions and the desire for peace by leaders on both sides. Bush had a point: when Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon were still around, there was no hope for settling Palestinian-Israeli differences. The Saudis and other Arab players were also far less willing to help out before they started feeling the heat from Iran.

That's all changed now. Abbas and Olmert not only get along personally but share similar visions. Olmert wants to end Israel's control over 3.5 million Palestinians, and warned in a recent interview that if a two-state solution to the conflict disintegrates, Israel will be doomed. Abbas, who has long opposed terrorism, wants a small Palestine alongside Israel.

Still, Olmert and Abbas have been unable to do much on the peace front without U.S. tutelage. Just drafting the modest joint declaration issued at Annapolis took weeks; the two sides couldn't even agree on what to call it, and it was only concluded, thanks to pressure from Rice, minutes before it was read. (The Palestinians favored calling it a "document"; the Israelis, a "statement." They settled on "understanding.")

Now Annapolis has launched a triple process: negotiations over the "core issues" of borders, Jerusalem and refugees; Palestinian institution-building under the guidance of Tony Blair, and reciprocal measures on the ground according to the 2003 Roadmap, which requires the Palestinians to halt terror and the Israelis to reduce the settlements. Progress on all three tracks will be possible only with strong U.S. prodding.

Will Bush and Rice deliver? Until now, their attempts to get involved in the Middle East have been creative but suffered from a lack of stamina and luck. Serious peacemaking requires insistence, persistence and a refusal to hide behind that old American mantra "We can't achieve peace if we want it more than the participants do." If Bush really intends to fulfill his pledge of Palestinian statehood while in office, he will have to do much more than host an occasional conference. He'll have to give his full backing to Rice and her diplomacy, and not hesitate to call the Israelis and Palestinians to order. Such efforts are unlikely in an American election year, when pressuring Israel is generally regarded as politically impossible. Given the gravity of the regional situation, however, and the dwindling time he has left, Bush may be tempted to intervene in earnest. If Annapolis was any guide to his intentions, we should give him the benefit of the doubt.