TOPICS > Politics

U.S.-Backed Mideast Summit Opens with Mixed Expectations

November 26, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, along with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Syria and other countries, plan to discuss prospects for a Palestinian state and other Mideast issues at a peace summit Tuesday in Annapolis, Md. Middle East experts assess the prospects for the conference.

GWEN IFILL: Now to the Middle East peace conference. Leaders and diplomats gather in Annapolis, Maryland, tomorrow to try to jumpstart the latest U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. Secretary of State Rice has said she hopes for an accord by the time the president leaves office, but many obstacles loom.

For more on this, we turn to Dennis Ross, a former chief Middle East negotiator in the first Bush and Clinton administrations. His new book is called “Statecraft and How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.”

And Robert Malley, he was special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, and also served on the National Security Council staff. He’s now the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group, which promotes conflict prevention and resolution. Welcome to you both.

Dennis Ross, what is the purpose of this meeting? And is there hope for it?

DENNIS ROSS, Former Chief Middle East Negotiator: Well, I think the purpose of the meeting is to launch a renewed process. For seven years, we’ve had no peace process. Now there’s an effort to launch a peace process again.

I think that’s a welcome development. Now, the question is, is there hope for it? It depends on what it is our measure is going to be. If the measure is to see negotiations resume, if the measure is to have a series of follow-on steps that will begin to change realities on the ground, if the measure is to get at least some agreements before the end of the administration, there could be hope for it.

If the measure is going to be they’re going to resolve the conflict by the end of 2008, then I would say they’re bound to be disappointed.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Malley, this is different from the kinds of conferences we’ve seen before, if only for the sheer number of people attending. How significant is that?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, at this point, as Dennis said, this conference is really about launching something that’s going to come the day after Annapolis. It’s about launching final status negotiations, implementation of phase one of the Israeli-Palestinian road map, and the third process is Arab engagement with Israel.

If that’s the point of the conference, then not much is going to happen over there. I mean, we know it’s going to happen. It’s going to be a series of relatively bland speeches. So what really matters is the choreography, and the pictures, and who’s going to be there.

Keeping score through attendance

Robert Malley
Former National Security Council Staff
Saudi Arabia will be there. Syria will be there. That is an achievement for the Bush administration. It only goes so far as it goes...If nothing happens the day after, we'll soon forget who was there.

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean that the mere -- as the State Department spokesman said today -- that the mere attendance, the fact that people are even showing up, is its own victory?

ROBERT MALLEY: In a way, yes, it's not insignificant. I mean, to say the least, had they not been there, things could have been much worse. There would be very little to show for it.

Arabs are coming. In particular, Saudi Arabia will be there. Syria will be there. That is an achievement for the Bush administration. It only goes so far as it goes. In other words, they show up for that one day. If nothing happens the day after, we'll soon forget who was there.

DENNIS ROSS: I'd just add one point on this.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

DENNIS ROSS: It is good that you have nearly 50 countries that are going to be there, because it's a statement by the international community they want to see something happen between Israelis and Palestinians. The paradox, of course, is the larger the number of countries, the more it becomes an event, the less it becomes a forum for any serious talks, and the less it becomes even a basis for Arabs and Israelis to engage.

It's easier for Arab participants to come, including the Saudis, when there's 50 countries there, or nearly 50, because it begins to look like it's a U.N. meeting, as opposed to a real peace process gathering. As a statement of support, good. As a basis on which to launch real negotiations, we'll have to see.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about who's there and who's not there. Syria is there, deputy foreign minister is there. Saudi Arabia is there, but Hamas is not there, and neither is Iran. How significant is that?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, first on Syria, I think, in a way, the U.S. could consider it's an achievement to have Syria there. I think Syria feels quite vindicated today. For seven years, it was basically put in the cold. It was said that it would be marginalized and isolated unless it shifted its policies.

As it turns out, not only are they there, they were courted until the very last minute. Arabs wanted them there. The Israelis wanted them there. The United States wanted them there. So they feel like, after seven years, they were proven right, everyone comes back to them.

They send the deputy foreign minister. That's a message that they're in it, but not entirely in it. They're not sending the foreign minister, but they feel at this point at the center of things.

Now the exclusion of Iran and Hamas, that was never in doubt. They were never even part of the list of potential invitees. I think the problem is the more the region is polarized, the more it's divided, the harder it's going to be to reach the kind of historic compromises that ultimately Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to reach.

"Weak" leaders seeking compromise

Dennis Ross
Former State Department Official
There is something that can be accomplished. What can be accomplished is a demonstration that you actually could come up with a pathway that offers promise for the future.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you that question, Dennis Ross. It seems that if certain people who are actually the troublemakers -- and for both of these leaders -- are not there, like, say, Hamas, both Israel and the Palestinian leader both fear what Hamas could do -- is there anything that can really be accomplished?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, there is something that can be accomplished. What can be accomplished is a demonstration that you actually could come up with a pathway that offers promise for the future.

The theory, of course, is that you put President Mahmoud Abbas in a position where he can offer a pathway to achieving Palestinian national aspirations, and Hamas offers, what, more of the same, more suffering, more isolation?

So here's a way to try to help the competition in a way that also, perhaps, can lead Hamas to adjust its own behavior. I think that's the logic of this. That will depend, of course, not just on offering speeches. That will depend upon changing realities on the ground so life begins to get better. It will depend upon having real negotiations that follow through.

I would call for the kinds of working groups, a meeting on a regular schedule, having groups on each of the core issues, having leaders meet with them on a regular basis.

I would call, as well, for having a kind of U.S.-Israeli, U.S.-Palestinian set of working groups to implement the phase one obligations of the road map, where every single obligation is interpreted differently by the two sides. Every obligation is seen on each side as their obligation being minimal and the other side's maximum.

GWEN IFILL: But that's part of a complication. The other part of this complication, it seems to me, Mr. Malley, is that we have three leaders, three main players in this are all coming from politically weak spots.

ROBERT MALLEY: And that's a mixed blessing. I mean, on the positive side, I think part of the momentum for this was precisely because everyone is desperate for something to happen. Mahmoud Abbas needed to prove, as Dennis said, that his way worked and Hamas didn't. Prime Minister Olmert, after the disastrous war in Lebanon, needed to show that he was still relevant. And the Bush administration, President Bush, facing a relatively catastrophic outcome in almost every other arena in the Middle East, wanted to show some progress here.

Of course, the flip side is weak leaders are going to find it hard to make serious, significant, historic compromises, which does bring us back to that question of Hamas. I mean, I think it's true that President Abbas wants to show that his way works and Hamas doesn't. But could you imagine a leader making historic compromises, implementing those compromises, when not only is his country, his entity territory, fractured the way that Gaza and the West Bank are, but when the party that won the elections considers itself not represented in these negotiations, and will do everything in its power to scuttle them?

The U.S. role

Robert Malley
Former National Security Council Staff
That has been traditional U.S. policy. We don't impose, but we suggest, and we prod, and sometimes we even pressure.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the U.S. role a little bit. The president has been virtually hands-off in this, at least this part of the process, for seven years. This is the first big push coming from the president and Secretary Rice in this way. Is that a significant thing? Could the U.S. hurt more than it helps, possibly?

DENNIS ROSS: I don't think the U.S. can hurt more than it helps. I think, in fact, having been disengaged for seven years, we face a situation now where there is very great cynicism in the region, not a whole lot of belief.

And one of the things this process needs to do is re-establish a sense of possibility, re-establish a sense of belief again. You look at the polling on the Israeli and the Palestinian sides, and they're mirror images. Two-thirds of the Palestinians and Israelis say, "OK, we support going there," and more than two-thirds say, "We doubt it will produce anything." That's not low expectations; that's cynicism.

So you're going to have to show something can work. When you have no process for seven years and life deteriorates, not a big surprise that you lose hope and you have cynicism.

So having the U.S. involved, I think, gives you a chance, if we're serious about the involvement, meaning it can't just be an example of stagecraft, where you stage an event. It should be an example of statecraft where you have objectives, you identify means, and you involve yourself in a way that helps the two sides begin to overcome differences, simply because now there's an intensity to the effort.

And one point that Rob made that is quite right: The weakness of the leaders doesn't have to be an inhibition, but it will be an inhibition if it looks like this is just going to be a platform for speeches.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you a little bit more about how far the U.S. can go on this. The president has said two interesting things over the last few days. He put out a statement in which he said, "I remain personally committed to implementing my vision of two democratic states living side-by-side." Then today he came out and sat side-by-side with the leaders and he said he doesn't plan to impose his vision on that. How do those two things work?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I mean, that has been traditional U.S. policy. We don't impose, but we suggest, and we prod, and sometimes we even pressure. I think the real question ultimately, if the goal is to reach a final status agreement, which everyone says that's at least the theoretical goal, we know and we should know it, if we didn't know it before, we should know it, given what happened over the past two months, that Israelis and Palestinians on their own cannot reach a substantive breakthrough.

They weren't even able to produce a document that was going to outline the contours of the final settlement. They're going to come up with something much vaguer tomorrow. That tells us something about what they could do on their own, given their own political situations.

Unless the U.S., with others -- Europeans, Arabs -- at some point will put its own ideas on the table to bridge the gaps, I think we could really -- we know that they're not going to be able to do it, and we should forget about them reaching a final status agreement.

What constitutes success, failure

Dennis Ross
Former State Department Official
I think success will be seen not by what happens at Annapolis, because Annapolis is a forum for speeches, not for serious deal-making, but if there is a process that's laid out afterwards.

GWEN IFILL: What constitutes, finally, Dennis Ross, failure, success? And what are the consequences?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think success will be seen not by what happens at Annapolis, because Annapolis is a forum for speeches, not for serious deal-making, but if there is a process that's laid out afterwards, if we know who's going to negotiate with whom, at what level, how often, if there's a feedback cycle built in, where the leaders are brought in and they're reporting in a sense back to us.

If we're playing a role with both of them to create phase one implementation, but also we bring the Arabs into this, because the Arabs need to create a cover. They need to create a cover for Abu Mazen that gives him greater capacity to make decisions and make compromises. They need to create an argument for Olmert.

Olmert, given his political weakness in Israel, can't on his own argue that Israel should make historic moves. But if he's able to point to historic changes, in terms of the Arabs reaching out to Israel -- and I would say getting the Arabs also to back the Palestinians with investment -- then you suddenly change the context. That's the measure of success. Failure would be, "This is an event, and there's no serious follow-through."

GWEN IFILL: Robert Malley?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I think the way the conference has now been defined, it's failure-proof, because you can't really fail that much in an event. It's also success-proof, because you can't really have a breakthrough when you have a series of speeches.

And from what I'm told, everyone is instructed you could speak for 30 seconds, one minute, two minutes. There's not going to be historic speeches. Perhaps the president has a little more time, but that's about it.

What really matters in Annapolis is what happens beforehand and what will happen after. Annapolis in itself is a moment that people will remember because of the choreography, the images, maybe some words. But the real challenges start the day after, and that's when the administration will truly be put to the test.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Malley and Dennis Ross, thank you both.


DENNIS ROSS: Thank you.