The Annapolis summit

November 21, 2007

It won't be a one-day wonder. But if supporters of next Tuesday's peace summit in Annapolis can keep Israeli and Palestinian leaders talking and committed to resolving the core issues that divide them, then the conference won't be a waste of time. Without talks, there can be no negotiated settlement and the preferred resolution to this conflict - a secure Israel, an independent Palestine - will remain no more than an ideal.

The decision to reduce the summit to one day was a disappointing acknowledgment of the difficulty in staging these talks and finding agreement on substantive issues. It takes time to develop the conditions to produce breakthroughs, and President Bush has ignored the Israeli-Palestinian problem until recently. But the two sides have been meeting for months now, and they should be encouraged and supported.

A few outside developments could readily improve conditions for continued talks: Mideast envoy Tony Blair announced this week a series of economic development projects to benefit Palestinians, and efforts are under way to establish a professional Palestinian police force that can deliver. The latter must be in place and tested before Israel would pull out of the West Bank.

The Annapolis summit has much to overcome. There hasn't been a viable peace process since 2000, and the political and physical landscape at issue has drastically changed since then: Israel no longer occupies the Gaza Strip, which is now the fiefdom of the Islamic militant group Hamas, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is overseeing a government-in-exile in the West Bank since a coalition with Hamas violently broke apart earlier this year. The latter made the summit possible.

Israel has taken steps to move the process forward, such as the recent promise to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge not to build new settlements didn't go far enough; all settlement construction should stop.

The recent past has complicated the prospects for significant developments at a 24-hour summit. It also means that progress will depend on input from more than Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The RSVPs aren't in yet, but prominent Arab neighbors and European leaders must attend and be willing to contribute to an overall agreement. And the Bush administration has to exert some leadership to push the dialogue and goodwill commitments forward.

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