by Hillel Schenker
"A new start," read the headline in the mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot the day after the Annapolis conference. Professor Elie Podeh, head of the Islamic and Middle Eastern studies department at the Hebrew University, suggested the headline should have read "A new start?" with the added question mark being very important.
According to public opinion polls, only 17% of the Israelis think the Annapolis conference was a success, while 42% consider it a failure.
So why do I think that the outcome of Annapolis was the best we could get under the current circumstances?
On the day following the conference, the Palestine-Israel Journal held a roundtable discussion in East Jerusalem for publication in our next issue. Although the topic was the Arab Peace Initiative, the moderator, Ha'aretz senior analyst, Danny Rubinstein, naturally began by asking the panelists' assessment of the conference.
Jamal Zakout, a former PA deputy minister and the current senior adviser to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, said that, for the Palestinians, the main achievement of the conference was, after seven barren years, an "unblocking of the peace process."
Professor Galia Golan of the Hebrew University, the IDC Lauder School of Diplomacy and Strategy and a Peace Now leader, said that from her perspective, the fact that the Israeli right is upset and protesting against Annapolis means that "something good must have happened there."
In my view, Zakout and Golan are right. For seven years, since the collapse of Camp David 2 in the summer of 2000, the outbreak of the second intifada, then prime minister Ehud Barak's declaration that "there is no Palestinian partner" and Ariel Sharon's election in 2001, there have been no negotiations, paralysis and mutual bloodshed, with the only movement occurring unilaterally with the disengagement from Gaza.
My basis for cautious optimism today is a comparison between the outcome of Camp David 2 and the Annapolis conference.
Camp David 2 collapsed without a mutual Israeli-Palestinian declaration, without a clear American declaration of progress and without any follow-up mechanism. It set the stage for the right's victory in Israel and the second intifada.
Annapolis concluded with a joint declaration, an Israeli and Palestinian commitment to ongoing negotiations on "the core issues of the conflict", an ongoing American involvement in the process, and an American commitment to monitor progress on both sides, a key factor which was lacking in the Oslo process.
Another key difference between Camp David 2 and Annapolis was the presence of the Arab foreign ministers. The lack of a broad Arab backing for the negotiations in 2000 was one of the causes of their failure. The presence of Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi and even Syrian representatives, the head of the Arab League and representatives of Muslim countries outside of the Arab world, create important regional and Muslim support for a negotiating process. This is all a direct result of the Arab Peace Initiative, which originated in Saudi Arabia, was originally ratified in Beirut in 2002 (two years after Camp David 2), and was recently reaffirmed in Riyadh in 2007.
The Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel recognition and normalization in exchange for withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian state based in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and comprehensive peace with it's neighbors - i.e. Syria and Lebanon.
Of course, it would have helped if American president George Bush had not invaded Iraq, and had not waited seven years to seriously engage in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace. But this does not negate the fact that Secretary of State Rice has defeated the neocons and succeeded in convincing Bush to devote the final year of his administration to a serious effort to promote a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Of course, it would help if the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had the charisma of Yasser Arafat, and if the Palestinians weren't divided between the PA controlled West Bank and the Hamas controlled Gaza. But if Abbas can demonstrate that a renewed process can help the Palestinians on the ground, it will enable the pragmatic pro-peace forces among the Palestinians to increase their strength.
Of course, it would help if the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, had not been responsible for the perceived Israeli failure in the Lebanon War of 2006, and was a more popular leader. Still, he apparently realizes that his hopes for a political future greatly depend upon a possible dramatic breakthrough in the peace process. He also appears to understand the importance of making significant progress towards a resolution of the conflict.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the UN general assembly partition resolution 181, and near the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel, the fulfillment of the original conception of a Jewish and a Palestinian state in the land of Israel/Palestine is the key to both the Israeli and the Palestinian future.
An unedited version of this article appeared in The Guardian.