If Smiles Were All It Takes

Now comes the hard part, and the odds aren't promising

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JERUSALEM—Despite the soaring, if determinedly vague, rhetoric of peace at the Middle East summit in Annapolis last week, the loudest echoes heard in the Holy Land have been the sounds of Palestinian rockets, Israeli missiles, and the enraged shouts of extremist religious protesters on both sides.

With negotiations on the nuts and bolts of peace scheduled to begin December 12, as agreed at Annapolis, the old reality remains firmly entrenched. There are no peace demonstrations, no heightened expectations. Whatever their good intentions, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remain straitjacketed by hard-line forces and weary publics grown cynical about such political showcases.

Neither leader appears to have been strengthened by the summit, yet neither has been weakened, either—precisely because neither Olmert nor Abbas breached any of the red lines that stymied past peace talks. Now, to meet the summit's quixotic goal of a final peace agreement by the end of next year, President Bush has implored them to take "bold" and "courageous" steps on such explosive matters as the division of Jerusalem, the dismantling of West Bank settlements, and the resettling of some 4 million Palestinian refugees.

Political suicide. Bush says he is optimistic. But he is not standing in Olmert's or Abbas's shoes. "In order to reach agreement, certainly on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees, the kind of daring that would be required of one or both of those two leaders would mean that one or both of them would not survive in office," says political analyst Yossi Alpher, former head of Israel's most influential strategic think tank and now coeditor of bitterlemons.org.

Time has only made Middle East diplomacy harder, if that's possible. Recalling the 2000 Camp David summit that collapsed over the issues of Jerusalem and refugees, and whose failure ushered in the blood-drenched Palestinian intifada, Alpher says Israelis and Palestinians "are farther apart on those two issues today than they were at Camp David."

Reflecting the breadth of the gulf, negotiators haggled for weeks over a modest joint statement before reaching agreement just before the time for Bush to read it out. The statement didn't so much as mention by name a single issue for negotiation, let alone take a position on one. As for setting a deadline, which Israel reportedly opposed, the negotiators pledged only "to make every effort" to settle their dispute by the end of 2008. The Israelis and Palestinians rededicated themselves to Bush's previous peace plan, the diplomatic "road map," which was rolled out at a high-profile summit in Amman, Jordan, four years ago. It went nowhere.

The obstacles now facing the Israeli prime minister can be measured by the demeanor of the nationalist politicians on whom his coalition government depends. They don't take the new diplomacy seriously enough to even get upset over it. A "cocktail party" is how Avigdor Lieberman, head of one of the two rightist factions, described the Annapolis gathering, and "pathetic" is how he characterized the resulting joint statement. Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party and an ultrareligious party, Shas, have threatened to topple Olmert's government if he even discusses Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

Abbas's predicament is even more stark. It is often said—accusingly, by Palestinians—that if it weren't for the Israeli Army's presence in the West Bank and its constant pressure on the guerrillas, Hamas would have run him out of there long ago. Now Abbas is somehow supposed to rally his security forces to take over the Israeli Army's job—to shut down terrorism not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza, where Hamas drove out his forces and took over in June. That was the calamity that prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to convene the Annapolis summit in the first place—to try to stop Hamas from extending its rule to the West Bank.

Any move Abbas makes against terrorist groups, especially Hamas, stands to convince even more Palestinians that he's a collaborator. "This is the end of Abbas's existence," says Maher Jabari, an Islamic political activist in the West Bank, after Palestinian Authority troops brutally dispersed thousands of anti-Annapolis conference protesters in Hebron. "He's working according to the U.S. and Israeli agenda," Jabari maintains.