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War and peace in Annapolis

November 27, 2007

Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, is a very beautiful town. In the old downtown districts, the 18th and 19th centuries survive with surprising grace and resilience. It’s the best town I’ve ever known just for walking around. I’ve been a few times: eaten good food there, and bought some great books, too, at Briarwood Book Shop on Maryland Avenue.

This week in Annapolis there will be a gathering of hawks and doves. Israel and the Palestinian Authority will be there, as will Syria and Saudi Arabia, under the hopeful, watchful eye of President George W. Bush, eager to rescue his reputation as international statesman with some kind — any kind — of breakthrough in the Middle East. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be there too, equally anxious to influence history’s verdict on her secretaryship.

Hopes are not high. So far, the parties cannot even agree on a framework for discussions. The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick, with her customary incisiveness, sails into the whole process here:

The mood is dark in the IDF’s General Staff ahead of next week’s “peace” conference in Annapolis. As one senior officer directly involved in the negotiations with the Palestinians and the Americans said, “As bad as it might look from the outside, the truth is 10 times worse. This is a nightmare. The Americans have never been so hostile.”

On Thursday a draft of the joint statement that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are discussing ahead of the conference was leaked to the media. A reading of the document bears out the IDF’s concerns.

The draft document shows that the Palestinians and the Israelis differ not only on every issue, but differ on the purpose of the document. It also shows that the US firmly backs the Palestinians against Israel.

And Carl in Jerusalem, an Israeli blogger I check out every day, has been arguing against the conference for weeks now.

These guys are a lot smarter than me and are much more likely to be right than I am. But I have a slightly different take on Annapolis.

For decades, the problem of Israel vs. Palestine has been helplessly awaiting its solution. Many things have been tried, and they have all failed. Wars have been won and lost, and none has made any difference. Oslo was a hugely unproductive bribe, proffered by the US and Europe to induce Yasser Arafat to say, in his broken English, something that could be construed as conceding the right of Israel to exist (in Arabic, he said exactly the opposite). Limited democracy — and the grant of a free vote in the absence of the institutions and the expectations of a democratised polity can only be limited in its democratic effect — has brought about no more than the ascendancy of a terrorist clique (Hamas) over a criminal kleptocracy (Fatah). Disengagement, whether from Lebanon or Gaza, has achieved nothing for peace — rather its reverse — in the desperately troubled and traumatised strip of land on the Mediterranean littoral.

So why on earth should anyone entertain the remotest optimism about the possible outcomes in Annapolis?

The principals involved certainly don’t inspire confidence. Olmert leads the weakest Israeli government that I can remember, and is its weakest ever leader. Abbas has a suspect past, to say the least, and is as powerless as Arafat was reluctant to rein in the terrorists in his own ranks. And, rightly or wrongly, Bush wears the legacy of his Iraq adventure like a poisoned crown of thorns he will never be free of, regardless of Annapolis.

The reasons for optimism, then, lie not in the players but in the patterns. Not in the men (no disrespect, Dr Rice), but in the moment. We have seen before, in the case of the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the collapse of the old Soviet Union, that a ‘problem’ long seen as intractable and irredeemable somehow proved to be its opposite, much to the world’s astonishment. Some would say it was the man, and not the moment: it was Mandela (and de Kierk), and Gorbachov who wrought those protean changes.

But maybe not. In both those cases there came a time when it became starkly clear that it was impossible to go on; it was impossible not to change. And the right men, at the right time, recognised the fact and seized the day. I think that day may have come in the Middle East — and it has come precisely because everything else has failed up to this point. It can’t go on as it has done any longer.

Israel cannot go on as before. The summer war in Lebanon demonstrated the limits of its military power. It cannot defeat a terrorist army dug into the bedrock and protected by the civilian infrastructure. Whether it’s fair or not, world opinion will not allow Israel that victory. We saw that at Qana, when Israel’s moral case for war evaporated in the wake of a few minutes’ coverage on CNN. We see it every day that the Qassams fall on Sderot and the world pays no mind until Israel strikes back.

Nor can Palestine. The only thing that holds the West Bank back from becoming the disaster that has enveloped Gaza is the Israeli security presence. Somehow Palestine has to shake off the dreadful legacy of Oslo, which established it as a perpetual beggar state bereft of dignity and self-respect, eternally beholden to outside funding, and eternally resentful for such. It needs an economy, infrastructure, jobs, growth, wealth. And Israel could teach it such a hell of a lot.

I don’t know that the time has come, but I hope it may have. I hope that the strange, unexpected and mysterious confluence of forces that resolved the problems of South Africa and Eastern Europe will configure itself again above this lovely port city on the shore of Chesapeake Bay, and fall like the rain.

It may be, precisely because of the weakness of each of the key players, that this is the time of the moment. It may be, according to the principles of game theory as applied to the theatre of politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, that now, more than at any time before, the principals may realise that it is inescapably in their own interests to seek peace rather than war. Few politicians could withstand that particular siren’s call.

We shall see. But somewhere, in these unpredictable and conflicted spirals of strength and weakness, hope and fear, hate and joy, there may — just — be a distant chance that each side will agree to forgive the other for the blood of the past and the pains of the present. No catalogue of the possible can include a perfect future for Israel and Palestine, but at least we can envisage one that does not require a constant and continual investment in death.

Maybe Annapolis will bring us closer to that state.

Carpe diem.

More, and countervailing, from Carl, Melanie Phillips. I’m a bit closer in opinion to Dalia at Good Neighbours.

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