Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:39 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:39 | SYDNEY

Annapolis: Beyond the photo op


Anthony Bubalo

28 November 2007 11:01

Annapolis has lived up to lowered expectations of it being little more than a photo op. Of course, it was important who was in the photo. The presence of the Saudi Foreign Minister and Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister was something of a success for American Middle-East diplomacy and harks back to the careful regional coalition-building of President Bush’s father. 

Syria’s presence was particularly important given what many consider to be the real goal of the summit — isolating Iran. It hardly signals a major breech in the long strategic relationship between Damascus and Tehran, but it still would have caused considerable consternation in Tehran. It might even strengthen those in the regime that have become more openly critical of President Ahmedinejad’s unique approach to winning friends and influencing neighbours. 

So what can we expect on the Israeli-Palestinian front?

For starters, don’t expect them to meet their own end of 2008 deadline for reaching an agreement on final status issues. Deadlines are always the first casualty of Israeli–Palestinian negotiations. 

Second, don’t bet the house on them reaching a final status agreement. Neither is in a strong political position to do so. The only thing keeping Olmert’s ruling coalition together is the desire of most of his coalition partners to avoid early elections — at this stage.  Abbas barely commands the loyalty of his own Fatah movement. 

Third, watch for spoilers. Stretching negotiations out over a year exposes the process to inevitable squalls, from terrorist attacks to coalition political crises. There are plenty of opponents on both sides keen to make already difficult negotiations rockier still. 

Having said all of this, as one excellent analysis of Annapolis has noted, it is now a case of ‘do-or-barely-survive’. It sounds facile, but having negotiations is better than not having them.

Previous negotiations and informal talks over many years mean the contours of an agreement are pretty much known. And public opinion on both sides is closer on some of the critical issues than you might think. Neither side will, therefore, need to do much creative thinking about how to solve tricky issues like the status of Jerusalem or the future of Palestinian refugees. The real issue is not solutions but decisions. 

The political will to make these decisions will, however, need to be built. And here is when the international community – including Australia – should come in. Most obviously, money, expertise and political support will need to flood – not trickle – into the Palestinian Authority. To bolster his authority, Abbas will have to demonstrate a marked improvement in Palestinian living conditions and future prospects. 

Hamas is making a mess of Gaza and should be allowed to continue doing so for the time being. But at some point they will need to be given a reasonable opportunity to join the process. Even at their lowest ebb they still represent 20-30 per cent of the Palestinian public. Regardless of whether Hamas decides to take that opportunity, they cannot be allowed to argue that the views of these Palestinians have been excluded. 

Strengthening Abbas also strengthens Olmert. He needs a new agenda to restore his domestic political fortunes after last year’s disastrous Lebanon war. But he only has an agenda if he has a negotiating partner that most Israelis feel, with some confidence, will contribute to their security, not detract from it. 

Here too the Arab states must help. Normalisation with Israel would strengthen Olmert politically. But normalisation is an important bargaining chip that Arab states will not give up for free.  Nevertheless, they can and should still take small steps as part of a process of normalisation that accompanies the negotiations, and culminates in an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.