Here is a curtain raiser that I have in today’s Guardian online.
Theories abound as to why an Annapolis conference and why now. Jerry Seinfeld would be excused for thinking that this is all a personal conspiracy against him - his visit to Israel was dominating the headlines until Annapolis came along. In fact some in the Israeli media have been drawing a rather unflattering analogy: the Annapolis conference resembles a Seinfeld episode - it's about nothing. Yada yada yada.
It's easy to be cynical, but Annapolis does matter. Israelis and Palestinians will formally re-launch permanent status negotiations after seven long, violent and destructive years. The Bush administration is finally engaged and expending some capital on this issue. The Arab world, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, will be in attendance. At the very least it is the kind of gathering that cannot be convened every fortnight, and to come away from it with no results would be a setback to the cause of Middle East peace and something of an embarrassment to those in attendance. The uninvited naysayers back home - Hamas, Iran, you know the list - may look like meanie spoil-sports today, but if a month from now negotiations are stalled and the situation on the ground is just as dreadful (place your bets) then it is they who will be wearing the Cheshire cat grins.
Annapolis could signify the rebirth of hope, but for this to be the case the credibility gaps that have the sceptics buzzing will need to be addressed.
The first involves the revival of the "roadmap". The history of the four-year-old document, according to which Israeli-Palestinian peace should have been secured in 2005, is one of the more abject lessons in how not to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. This week, however, the parties and the roadmap sponsors will rededicate themselves to "roadmap phase one", peace-process talk for issues such as settlement freeze, outpost removal, easing of closure and removal of checkpoints, reopening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority institutional and security reform and a crackdown on terrorism.
Precious little from this list has been accomplished. The new ingredient to be revealed at Annapolis will be a US-led monitoring mechanism to oversee implementation of these issues. This may lead to partial improvement on the ground, but it ignores the bigger structural reason for the roadmap's failure. It is the same reason that incrementalism and confidence building has failed as an approach for over 15 years: namely that it is the core political issues that need to be addressed. Delivering on roadmap phase one issues can provide oxygen, for a brief period, to a serious permanent-status negotiation. They cannot replace it.
This takes us to the second credibility challenge Annapolis faces: what kind of a process is being launched? Syrian attendance implies the relaunching of comprehensive negotiations between Israel and all its neighbours. Yet everyone, including Syrians themselves, still seems to be in the undecided category regarding renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations. The Arab states will be in attendance, but unlike the Madrid conference in 1991, there is no pre-agreed framework for advancing a regional process the morning after Annapolis. At Madrid, a regional architecture was created whereby five working groups met during the subsequent months and years to discuss economic development, environment, water, refugees and arms control and regional security. The modality for maintaining an Arab states' role post-Annapolis has not thus far been formulated.
The headline question, though, is whether Annapolis sets in motion meaningful Israeli-Palestinian permanent-status negotiations. Is Annapolis more about isolating Iran, defeating Hamas and striking a blow for so-called moderation against extremism than it is about actually delivering a viable and realistic two-state solution? While these goals are sometimes described as being mutually supportive, the opposite argument is actually more convincing. The inability of the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans to produce any guiding parameters for these negotiations in advance of Annapolis hardly inspires confidence for the morning after.
So now let us look at each of these actors in turn.
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, arrives at Annapolis battered and bruised from both ongoing police investigations and last summer's Lebanon debacle. Olmert's coalition allies on the right are threatening to desert him if the word Jerusalem even passes his lips, and their supposed counterweight, the Labour party leader, Ehud Barak, seems to relish the prospect of Olmert's failure more than the realisation of peace and security for his country. Before Annapolis, when Olmert peeked over this political precipice, he chose to pull back and avoid a moment of truth. But that calculation will need to change for negotiations to become productive. Olmert has convinced many in the Israeli peace camp and his international interlocutors of the sincerity of his pursuit of a realistic peace agreement. This week marked the 30th anniversary of then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, an event from which Olmert might draw the following inspiration. When Menachim Begin went to Camp David to negotiate with Sadat, the Israeli public supported peace talks but did not support a full withdrawal from the Sinai or the dismantling of all Israeli settlements there. The then-Israeli opposition leader, Shimon Peres, cautioned Begin against making such concessions. Today's polls on Israeli-Palestinian talks are similar. Absent political courage from the Israeli side and encouragement from the American sponsor (remember the role of the much maligned Jimmy Carter at Camp David), there is no post-Annapolis worth waiting for.
Olmert's political problems must look like a cakewalk from the window of the presidential compound in Ramallah. President Abbas arrives at Annapolis as the head of a divided Palestinian polity and unable to even set foot in Gaza, where 1.4 million Palestinians live under siege and the threat of further punitive measures (their Israeli neighbours face daily, if largely ineffective, rocket strikes). Abbas needs political concessions from the folks in Jerusalem and Washington and, in particular, a prospect for the end of occupation in order to revive the fortunes of his Fatah movement and the path of negotiated non-violent conflict resolution. The Palestinians will be showered with kind words at Annapolis; three weeks later they will likely receive pledges of hard cash at a donor's conference in Paris. Even if the Palestinians are presented with a horizon of real independence and statehood, it will likely be preconditioned on an unrealistic set of Palestinian security measures.
To really be credible, the Annapolis process will have to overcome two remaining taboos: that Palestinians can deliver ongoing security to Israel under conditions of occupation and that a divided Palestine can midwife a sustainable peace. The Hamas spoiler potential is not solely or even principally about its ability to deploy violence. It is also about the credibility and legitimacy of a process that excludes the party that polled most votes in Palestinian elections.
Which brings us back to our American friends. The Bush administration continues to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of a global war on terrorism and as part of the momentous struggle of good against evil. The great irony of the Annapolis conference is that the framing narrative of its convener is the one thing that most undermines its chances of success. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is grievance-driven and its resolution is all about ending the occupation. Israel needs and deserves security and peace but those things don't coexist cozily with occupation. Violent al-Qaidists and their copycat crews use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to rally and mobilise support, to vilify America and to undermine America's allies in the region.
That does not change the basic equation that for the vast number of Palestinians, Hamas included, this is about addressing a real grievance and not about destroying Israel or America. An America that accurately connects the dots in the region will likely pursue a more inclusive and comprehensive process and do so with the conviction that this is a vital American interest. The alternative is to continue to pursue a policy that looks like it was drawn up on the back of a napkin over lunch with George Costanza and Cosmo Kramer. The Americans are back in the Middle East peacemaking business, but now Annapolis needs to be about more than nothing. And it shouldn't need 180 episodes to get to something.