The Elephant in Annapolis' Living Room

The official stars of the peace talks were Israel and Palestine. But much talk focused on absent Iran.

| Thu Nov. 29, 2007 1:00 AM PST

This week, delegations from 50 countries descended on the historic waterfront town of Annapolis, Maryland, for the belated resumption of U.S.-led Middle East peace talks. The conference was touted as a landmark occasion—the beginning of the end of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But for at least two parties, it wasn't the feel-good event of the year. Both Iran and the Office of the Vice President were most likely left feeling isolated.

Iran, not present for the talks, must have felt stung that among those assembled at the U.S. Naval Academy was Syria. Tehran's erstwhile ally in supporting Hezbollah and Hamas joined a broad alliance of countries—including Israel and a host of Sunni Arab nations—that Washington has been trying to cobble together to constrain the Iranian regime. Cheney's office was no doubt displeased, since the peace talks are just the latest signal that in the twilight months of the Bush administration, national security policy now increasingly seems in the more pragmatic grip of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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Speaking for hardliners opposed to the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Frank Gaffney Jr., president of the hawkish Center for Security Policy, wrote in the Washington Times that "despite official efforts to lowball its significance, Miss Rice's conclave is shaping up to be a gang-rape of a nation on a scale not seen since Munich in 1938. This time, the intended victim is Israel. As with the effort to appease the Nazis and Fascists nearly 70 years ago, however, the damage will not be confined to the rapee. The interests of the Free World in general and the United States in particular will suffer from what the Saudis and most of the other attendees have in mind for the Jewish State—namely, its dismemberment and ultimate destruction."

At a luncheon hosted by the Israel Project the week before the Annapolis conference kicked off, David Wurmser, until recently a senior Middle East advisor to Cheney, complained that "the secretary of state is wearing a hole out [of the atmosphere] traveling to Israel and to the neighbors to promote the Arab-Israeli peace track. And yet you don't see signs of such frequent travel by an American official [at that level] to Beijing, Japan, and Seoul to deal with [the] North Korea [threat], or to Baghdad to ensure that goes right, and so we can confront Iran there, and regionally."

Focusing on the Israel-Palestine issue at this point fuels "an inattentiveness to the major issues," Wurmser continued, identifying current national security challenges that are "reaching the near acute stage" as North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. But Wurmser, Gaffney, and other hawks are increasingly isolated, even among some of the activists opposed to the Iranian regime.

"Annapolis is very important," says Shahriar Ahy, an Iranian-born political analyst who has worked as an advisor to the Iranian Shah's son, Reza Pahlavi. "It isolated Iran with an anti-Iran front. It brought [in] Syria and demonstrates the reality that the Saudis think that the obstacle to Middle East peace, rather than Israel, is Iran."

"I think it was great," says former Shah-era Iranian education minister Manouchehr Ganji, now a Washington, D.C.-based human rights activist, "to get Syria to attend the conference, to have the Syrian deputy foreign minister come and try to bring Syria into peace accords and isolate Iran."

Days before the conference, foreign affairs reporter Aluf Benn wrote in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that "in return for strengthening the pro-American axis in the Middle East, Israel is being asked to declare its willingness to withdraw from the territories and back up its words with some steps on the ground. That is a worthwhile and even cheap price for international support."

Though the conference was larger on symbol than on substance, it showed that the Middle East conflict occurs on shifting sands. Saudi ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir was asked why his country's foreign minister had indicated the day before that he would not shake hands with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, or recognize the Jewish state. "This is a serious effort; we are not here for theatrics," he replied, according to the Associated Press. "The time for handshakes will come when there is a peace agreement." The official-speak was for show, an Israeli journalist indicated to me, noting press reports that longtime former Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar and Olmert had held secret meetings in Jordan. The journalist intertwined two fingers to illustrate how close the Israel-Saudi alliance is on issues such as Lebanon.

But earlier in the week Wurmser disputed whether Iran would really be more frightened of a broad international front, such as the one assembled in Annapolis, than of signs that the United States was prepared to act unilaterally. "Does Iran care about isolation?" he asked. "I think Iran cares more about American unilateralism. It takes comfort in multilateralism."

Of course, Annapolis was only indirectly about Iran. Its primary purpose was to serve as the kick-off of a process to pursue a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Annapolis is the "launching pad for serious efforts between the two to negotiate the establishment of a Palestinian state," says a State Department official. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later added, "The Palestinian people have waited a long time for the dignity that will come with an independent state. The Israeli people have waited a long time for a peaceful neighbor that can help to provide real security."

Those who have argued that Washington should reengage in the peace process said the conference was too little too late. Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy noted recently in the Guardian that "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."

For the Bush White House, was Annapolis about the Israelis and the Palestinians—or other foreign policy or political goals? "At the core, this administration understands it will be judged by success or failure in Iraq," says Wurmser. "Bush does what he thinks he should do."

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