Hirsh: Theater of the Absurd

There's always a "Waiting for Godot" quality to these peace conferences. Not just in the most obvious way: the sense of futility that always clouds Mideast talks, that feeling of permanent irresolution to impossible issues. No, one is reminded of Samuel Beckett's play even in the absurdist dialogue one hears from disgruntled reporters (myself among them) here at the Bob Hope Performing Arts Center, the Naval Academy pavilion where the press is housed for the one-day Annapolis conference: "It's not worthwhile now. No, it's not worthwhile. Shall we go? Yes, let's go. (They do not move)."

We can't move, of course, because there's always the chance something might happen. So it was with Wye River and Camp David, the last times the Israelis and Palestinians came together fruitlessly under U.S. auspices. Back then the press was bivouacked at a campus dining hall (Wye) and in an elementary school with tot-size toilets (Camp David). Now, at least, we have stadium seats—but no more information. Press spokesmen for some of the 50 delegations stroll listlessly amid the filing tables, but they seem to know as little as we do. George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, the hosts of the conference, aren't giving up much themselves. The president announced in his speech today that Godot (a Palestinian state, that is) is expected to arrive in the next 12 months, propelled by the biweekly negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception," Bush told the audience of some 50 invited ministers.

What he didn't say, of course, is that those talks have already been going on for months—and have, in effect, gone backward. The original hope was that Annapolis would feature a specific joint statement addressing key core issues that divide the two sides. The Palestinians wanted to bring up borders to be negotiated and the status of Jerusalem; the Israelis wanted recognition as a "Jewish state" and a concession on the status of Palestinian refugees, who will have to be told by their leadership some day that they can never return to the land they lost in 1948. But those talks foundered badly, and about two weeks ago the two sides, along with the Americans, agreed to scale back to a mere "work plan" for future talks. Annapolis became what the Americans insisted it would never be: a photo op.

It's not even that, actually: Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, refused to shake the Israelis' hands, and other Arab ministers studiously avoided anything that resembled a convivial group shot. Asked why today, Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir said the prince didn't mean to be "negative" but "we are not here for theatrics."

So why are we here, then, if there's to be neither substance nor theater, neither rhyme nor reason? We're just waiting for Godot, I guess. You know, come to think of it, this really isn't worth my while. I think I'm going to leave. (He does not move.)