BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2007, 12:19 GMT
Analysis: After Annapolis
By Jeremy Bowen
Middle East editor, BBC News

The sun was going down over Chesapeake Bay last Tuesday as the Middle East diplomatic circus left the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. The Israeli and Palestinian delegations headed for home, by way of Washington DC, and more meetings with President Bush.

Since the summer, just getting to Annapolis and not letting the meeting become a disaster has been the main focus of American policy towards the two sides.

Annapolis photo call - Abbas, Bush and Olmert

Now all of them, Americans, Palestinians, Israelis, and the others who came in support - 16 Arab countries, and nearly a quarter of the world's foreign ministers - have to try to deliver.

The plan is to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. At Annapolis the joint statement of the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, read out by President George W Bush, said they would "make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008". The target is big and will be hard to reach.

Annapolis is supposed to take the Middle East a giant step forward towards peace.

Many of the people whose lives are meant to be improved by the talks expect them to wither away, like all the other attempts at peace. Worse, a failure could lead to more violence.

Hardliners unconcerned

Even before Mr Olmert arrived home there were some demonstrations by Israelis who believe the West Bank is theirs, for reasons of religion, defence and nation-building. The demonstrations weren't all that big.

The streets of Jerusalem would be packed if the religious right really thought that Israel was about to agree to the sort of concessions necessary to create a Palestinian state.

Decision making is the painful time, so painful that the only reference in the Annapolis joint statement to the hardest part of what lies ahead was a mention of "core issues"

But most of them don't believe it is going to happen, so they have been staying at home.

On the Palestinian side Hamas, the main opponents of Annapolis, are not getting too worried either.

At one demonstration in Hebron on the West Bank, one man was shot dead by Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.

But the best that a spokesman for Hamas could come up with when he was interviewed by the BBC was a bald statement that the new Annapolis process would not deliver the state that Palestinians want.

Many Palestinians will stay sceptical while Israeli troops stop them moving freely and until they see signs that Israel is keeping its promise to freeze settlement building and dismantle nearly 100 settlements or outposts illegal even under Israeli law in the West Bank.

From bad to worse

But forget the negatives for a moment. The other way of looking at Annapolis is to suspend your disbelief and focus on what could go right instead of what could go wrong.

A senior American official, speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity as he is involved with the diplomacy, gave a list of the reasons why he believes Annapolis could work.

Both sides were at an historic moment. Relations between the Palestinians and Israel had been bad and getting worse since the assassination in November 1995 of Yitzhak Rabin, who was then the prime minister of Israel.

He was killed by a Jewish extremist who wanted to stop him making territorial concessions to the Palestinians on the West Bank.

Now, the official said, both sets of leaders had an incentive to make a deal, because the Middle East was changing in ways that threatened both of them.

The Palestinians, he said, wanted a viable state, and the world "could not imagine" the Israeli occupation of the West Bank continuing. Even so, it would be tough, and the year of talks they planned at Annapolis might not be long enough.

New start

Despite all the problems that are bound to lie ahead, both the Palestinian and Israelis delegations seemed happy with what they had managed to do.

On the plane home, the Israelis thought that they had come away with what they wanted, without awkward concessions and with only the suggestion of a timetable. The Palestinians just seemed relieved that something new had started.

Jerusalem holy sites

Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian negotiator, was almost ebullient as he stood in front of an audience at the Brookings Institution, one of Washington's leading think tanks.

He did not suggest it was going to be easy either. Ruefully, he said that it should have taken 17 minutes to negotiate the bland opening statement that President Bush read out at Annapolis.

Instead, by Mr Erekat's count it took 47 days, and the last minute presence of the US president and his secretary of state at the table before they could do it.

They finished a few minutes before the three leaders were due to go on stage in front of their invited guests at Annapolis.

The whole job of agreeing a state could be done in three months, Mr Erekat proclaimed, if they all agreed it was time to take decisions.

Decision time

If only. Decision making is the painful time, so painful that the only reference in the joint statement to the hardest part of what lies ahead was a mention of "core issues".

Everyone knows that means the futures of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders and water, but it seems it is still too much to mention them by name.

Decision time would be the moment, if they made it that far, when the Israeli prime minister would have to tell some Jewish settlers in the West Bank that they would be losing their homes.

Mr Abbas would have to tell the families of Palestinians who lost their homes 60 years ago in what became Israel that the vast majority of them would not be going back.

Do Messrs Abbas and Olmert have the stomach for that? And even if they do have the will to try to make it happen, do they have the strength to deliver on their promises?

That's when the real demonstrations might start.

Annapolis has produced the prospect of talks that will be extremely difficult, between leaders who are weak.

Ehud Olmert might soon be damaged by another official report on Israel's debacle in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. His coalition relies on the votes of a right-wing party that opposes concessions to the Palestinians.

Mahmoud Abbas doesn't control all of the territory that he wants to include in a Palestinian state. Hamas is in charge of internal affairs in Gaza.

It is going to be hard for him to deliver anything, let alone the security guarantees Israel wants, if he is not the master in his own house. Does weakness mean they won't be able to make moves at the table - or does it mean they might take a double or quits gamble?

The talks spawned by Annapolis will be flawed and difficult. But no-one has a plan B, except for more of the same misery they been inflicting on each other for more than 60 years.

But for anyone who believes in a negotiated settlement the next year should be seen as an opportunity. At least they are talking to each other now.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific