How To Judge the Success of the Annapolis Summit

Think of it as a big party.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas meets with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert 

Ten days before the so-called Annapolis summit—the upcoming Middle East peace conference more-or-less scheduled for next week —opposition operatives in Israel circulated a joke: “Why haven’t the invitations been issued yet? For a wedding you send the invitations early; you never get much notice for a funeral.”

Annapolis—neither a wedding nor a funeral—is already the subject of many such jokes. Announced by President George W. Bush at the beginning of this summer, this summit was meant to be the culmination of a renewed effort to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But the parties involved never agreed what that might mean in practice. That may be the source of all the troubles that followed.

Initially, Bush expressed a minimalist approach to the meeting. The participants, he said, will “look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform [in the Palestinian Authority]. And they will provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations.” But his carefully crafted words didn’t prevent other parties from hoping that more tangible achievements might be possible. Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was largely responsible for these raised expectations. “There should be a deepening of the dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis on all of the issues that will lead ultimately to … the founding of a Palestinian state,” she said. But as the months passed, Rice grudgingly tempered such unrealistic optimism.

“We must face the fact that peace must be built upon power, as well as upon good will and good deeds,” President Harry Truman once said. In the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders, Rice found a lot of good intentions but very little power in the hands of those inclined to make unpopular decisions.

The Palestinians were not yet ready to take responsibility for security and governance, even in the West Bank. (Gaza is now controlled by Hamas, with whom there’s no dialogue.) The Israeli government was reluctant to make concessions on “final status” issues—like Jerusalem, future borders, and Palestinian refugees. The “Arab world”—whose role is to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and show some signs of willingness to reconcile with Israel—didn’t show much enthusiasm for either goal. Step by step, expectations were reduced. Instead of an attempt to bring an end to the conflict, the meeting is now merely the start of negotiations.

“The president of the United States has no desire to call people together for a photo-op,” Rice promised earlier this year. But Annapolis came to be just that: a photo-op. “The importance of Annapolis must not be exaggerated but also not underemphasized,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday, “because President Bush and many nations are sponsoring this broad meeting.” In other words, the host, not what happens, is what makes the summit important.

This will be a big party. Between 40 and 50 foreign ministers will show up. Why are they coming? The answer given by Olmert applies to them all: because they were invited. No one wants to be seen as an obstacle, no one wants to snub the U.S. effort. Not after spending so much time criticizing the Bush administration for not doing enough on this issue. But no one realistically expects that the meeting will have a lasting impact on the future of peace negotiations.

In this context, the meeting has already been declared a failure by many observers. But there’s no reason to give up the search for signs of possible, if modest, success. After all, the less ambitious the agenda, the greater the chance that it will be a success.

It all comes down to the questions every host asks: Did I get a good turnout? Who came? Did they look nice? Did they mingle? Were they happy? (The food will not be an issue on this occasion.) In Annapolis, the questions will be things like: Will the Saudis send their foreign minister or just the ambassador to Washington, a lower-level representative with no royal blood? Will he shake the hand of an Israeli? Will he smile at Olmert?

The Saudis’ participation is key to a “successful” event. They will be the center of attention, the life and soul of the party. They know that they’re the guests of honor, and they’ve played their hand smartly. Every gesture they make, every word they utter will be analyzed in great detail. A friendly mien might hint that an important Arab country is ready to start the process of reconciliation with Israel. A cold shoulder would be a blow to Israel’s hopes and to the Bush administration’s prestige, but, more importantly, it would also be a sign that the Saudis are not ready to commit to Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

Amazingly enough, on Monday evening the invitations had still not been sent out (Tuesday should be the day), but the State Department was adamant in its insistence that “there will be a positive reaction.” This means that the party preparations are complete. The host (Bush), the DJ (Rice), the time (Tuesday), and the venue (Annapolis) are all set. Abbas and Olmert, the main guests, just need to respond the way President Truman responded to the invitation to his own inaugural festivities: “Weather permitting, I hope to be present.”