An Opening in Annapolis
The Middle East conference is a modest success.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

THE MIDDLE EAST peace meeting in Annapolis yesterday comfortably cleared the low bar of expectations that had been set for it. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and President Bush committed themselves and their governments to reaching a two-state peace settlement by the end of next year. At the last minute, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations agreed on a joint statement promising "vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations" to resolve "all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception." The more than 50 countries and organizations that witnessed and implicitly blessed the new peace process included Saudi Arabia, which dispatched its foreign minister, and Syria, whose attendance may have opened a small crack in its alliance with Iran.

The considerable skepticism that surrounds the new talks is justified. Yesterday's meeting resembled the Madrid peace conference arranged by the first Bush administration in 1991, a festival of speeches followed by negotiations that soon bogged down. Yet 16 years later there are some encouraging differences, starting with the far clearer commitment of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make peace. Both Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas directly appealed to their neighbors yesterday with the same phrase: "The time has come." More concretely, the Annapolis statement bound the two sides to "immediately implement" their obligations under the U.S.-sponsored "road map" of 2003 and established the United States as "monitor and judge" of their fulfillment. That could give a new impetus to Palestinian efforts to take over security in the West Bank and Israeli pledges to dismantle dozens of illegal settlement outposts. It also should ensure that the Bush administration plays a direct and powerful role as negotiations proceed.

Some argue that the administration ought to be setting out the terms for a settlement in order to bridge intractable gaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In fact, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas well know what it will take to make a deal, thanks to 15 years of previous formal and informal talks between the two sides. The most important contribution the United States can make in the coming year is to help create the political and diplomatic context the two leaders will need to make those concessions. Implementation of the road map is vital: The dismantlement of illegal settlements and serious Palestinian steps against terrorism could galvanize public support that Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas now lack. Equally important is a serious commitment by Arab states. Despite their presence in Annapolis, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been lukewarm at best in their support for Mr. Abbas.

Finally, the Annapolis process can't work unless the United States, Israel and Mr. Abbas come up with a workable strategy for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The present policy of isolating the Islamists and blockading Gaza only gives Hamas an incentive to disrupt the process through terrorism -- a tactic that has been successful in the past. While the talks proceed, Gaza cannot be left to fester.

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