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30 November 2007

What actually happened at Annapolis?

The chief executive of the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre gives her take on Annap

By Lorna Fitzsimons

What were the positives at Annapolis? Well, it was the first real talks in seven years.

There was a very large and significant Arab delegation – 12 states led by the Arab League itself as a leader.

The Israeli PM talked publicly and empathically about the plight of the Palestinian refugees.

For the first time Israel agreed to talk about Final Status issues before there had been a serious improvement by the Palestinians to protect Israeli security (the implementation of Phase One of the Road Map).

There is now a timetable in place, a start date and an aspiration to try and complete with-in 12 months. December 12th is the first meeting on the ground.

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No backward steps from the more controversial key Arab players – Saudis and Syria.

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America is now increasingly engaged with monitoring the delivery on both sides of the Road Map.

The Russians want to hold a follow on conference in the New Year.
What was disappointing about Annapolis.
No statement from the Palestinians about the suffering of the Jews as there has been before.

Some think Bush’s words on the final status bilateral negotiations suggested he would leave the two sides to it and didn’t show the engagement that will be needed to bridge the gap on the difficult issues as Clinton tried to do in 2000.
Not as much talk from the Arab states about normalisation with Israel as there could have been. But perhaps this was an unrealistic expectation at this point – just being there was an enormous step.

The Palestinians and Israelis were not as firm on the end-date for outcomes as they could have been. There is an end date – Bush’s pledge to get to a peace agreement by the end of his Presidency – but there is still real scepticism about how possible this is, given the lack of agreement on the joint statement.
So where next?

All of the words said at Annapolis were good – but the important thing now is going to be how people judge how sincerely they were spoken. Will Israel do all it can re movement to allow trade etc. in West Bank?

Small steps should not be over looked given this is such a big and often overwhelming problem. We must balance this with Palestinian obligations under Phase I of the Roadmap – building governance, taking security control and moving toward responsible statehood.
Lots of importance is being put on Tony Blair’s work by all sides and they see this as key to any movement that can be made on the ground in the short term. He has clearly got both the confidence of both teams and also major commentators in Israel and the PA. Blair’s role cannot be ignored.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister is pivotal in the next steps because it will be him and his office who will implement any changes on the ground in the West Bank. He says that he will not stand in the way of any deal. However, it will be on the conviction that he shows inside the IDF in managing the policies down to the sergeant’s mess that he will be judged by many.
The challenge for the Arabs, especially the Saudis, is showing how committed they are to the process. They must now come up with the money and in a big way. To date they always promised to help, but did not give or give enough. It is time to see the colour of their money to judge their real commitment to making this work.
All in all the jury is out. None of the crucial stuff on bilateral talks could really have happened with out this show. What I learned is that the symbolism of who was in Annapolis was just about as important as anything that was said. It would be unwise to be too cynical about it.
There is a belief between the three principal players that it is now or never. That there are lots of other factors that are putting this age-old conflict into perspective in the region as never before. This should not be used to be naive about the size of the negotiating challenges that lie ahead in the next 12 months. Often the closer you are, the further away the deal can seem and the more difficult.
The fact that the Russian Foreign Secretary is very keen to hold a follow up conference in the New Year is also grounds for hope.
However, there has to be a commitment to overcoming obstacles and a will to succeed. This process will only work if the two principal leaders really want it to.

And our role from the West – we need to stop pointing to the weaknesses in the process and talking about why the peace process is bound to fail. We must realise that only the main players in the Middle East have the power to make this happen. There is no perfect answer just round the corner. Both sides just need to get on with it and if you believe the positive spin that both sides were putting out at the conference then they clearly agree with this sentiment too.

It is important to challenge the easy conclusion that Olmert and Abbas are weak. They are – but as events in Annapolis showed, they are not paralysed by it. In fact, perhaps their relative weakness and the threats to their leadership have acted as a spur to make real progress on this issue.

Lorna Fitzsimons is Chief Executive of Bicom