Despite widely expressed misgivings inside and outside the Bush administration, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears determined to go ahead with her plan to host a conference on Middle East peace later this month at Annapolis near Washington.
What is the conference for?
The official American answer is that the conference is designed to take "the necessary steps" towards a lasting peace based on the two-state principle as spelled out by President George W Bush in 2002.
However, Dennis Ross, the veteran US peace-broker in the Middle East, believes that Rice's goal may be more modest.
Ross writes: "The Secretary believes that such a 'political horizon' will benefit President Mahmoud Abbas in his competition with Hamas. Hamas may control Gaza today, but Rice is betting that if Abbas can show that he offers a pathway to achieving Palestinian national aspirations and Hamas offers only failure, Palestinians will eventually reject Hamas."
If Ross's analysis is correct, Annapolis will be nothing but a cynical maneuver to intervene in the domestic Palestinian power struggle. And that, to put it mildly, is an unworthy aim for a great power. Worse still, it would be poor diplomacy if only because, even if Hamas were marginalized, President Abbas would still be unable to sell a non-existent peace plan to his people.
The core of Hamas' support is that segment of the Palestinian opinion that does not accept the existence of Israel in any form or shape. Thus, it is unlikely that a two-state formula, which implies the acceptance of Israel as a permanent reality, would spell the end of Hamas as a player in Palestinian politics.
The issue is not what Hamas thinks or wants. The issue is the context in which Hamas is able to attract an audience. Even in Egypt and Jordan that have signed formal peace treaties with Israel, a majority of people may share Hamas' dream of re-conquering the whole of historical Palestine. What matters, however, is that the context of Egyptian and Jordanian politics does not allow those anti-Israel sentiments to be translated into acts that might threaten the peace treaties.
The current context of Palestinian politics, on the other hand, does not favour peace through compromise.
Whatever that President Abbas might be able to secure would still look paltry to those Hamas supporters who want everything and more.
Two other factors make matters even more complicated.
The first is the weakness of the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the even shakier position of Abbas's cabinet of "technocrats." It is not at all certain that Olmert would be able to produce a meaningful deal inside his own Cabinet let alone in the Knesset as a whole. On the Palestinian side, it would be naïve to think that the band of largely unknown players would be able to do better than Yasser Arafat and his group of ' historic figures' did in their time, especially when the Palestinian Authority has lost its writ in Gaza.
The second complicating factor is the growing perception within the region that the United States, plagued by its internal divisions, is losing its traditional position of power and influence in the Middle East. Even if the tide of the war seems to be turning against Al Qaeda and its insurgent allies, many in the region believe that the next US administration will disengage from Iraq if only to hammer in the claim that the war was a mistake from the start.
The perception of US weakness is reinforced by the failure of the American political elite to agree on a diagnosis of the threat that the ambitions of Khomeinist mullahs in Tehran poses to Washington's position in the Middle East.
Both the Islamic Republic in Tehran and the Baathist elite in Damascus are determined to force the Bush administration or its successor into a humiliating retreat from the region. Today, even the offer to return the Golan Heights to Syria is unlikely to persuade the Syrian leaders into signing a formal peace treaty with Israel. The reason is that they have attached their wagon to that of the Islamic Republic on a journey towards what Tehran believes would lead to a reshaping of the global order as a whole.
Talking to leaders from various countries in the region these days it is not hard to discover a feeling of disappointment mixed with anger against the United States as a fickle friend and a power obsessed with its domestic political hang-ups.
"When I attended an American university in the 1950s, we were talking of 'The Beautiful American', " says a prominent regional leader in a private conversation. "After that we had ' The Quiet American', and then 'The Ugly American'. Now, whenever I visit the United States, I think we are dealing with 'The Confused American.' "
Let us hope that I am wrong. But I do not think holding a conference at Annapolis at this time is a good idea. Isolating Hamas would only mean driving it further into Tehran's arms, something that some Hamas leaders, and perhaps most of its supporters, do not wish but might accept as dire necessity. Summoning Abu Mazen to Maryland and sending him back empty handed, as is almost certain to happen, could squander whatever he has left in terms of political capital.
An exercise designed to commit Olmert and Abbas to a hypothetical peace deal at an unspecified date may provide a couple of days' worth of photo-ops. But it would do no one any good, save the enemies of peace in the Middle East.
A diplomatic fanfare is not the best format for negotiating the creation of two states, especially when such complex issues as borders, security, Jerusalem and the right of return are concerned. Neither Olmert nor Abbas has the mandate to commit his side on such issues based only on vague promises and "general principles."
Even at this late stage, it might be wiser to postpone the conference until the contours of a genuine deal are agreed upon in behind-the-scenes negotiations. The Bush administration has often boasted about its serious approach to diplomacy, presumably as opposed to President Bill Clinton's almost playful attitude. Thus, a postponement explained by the explanation that more work needs to be done, may actually enhance the administration's claim of seriousness.
A Persian proverb says: "Never haggle over a carpet that has not been woven!" And, yet, this is precisely what Dr. Rice seems to be inviting Olmert and Abbas to do.