`Failure is not an option'

On eve of negotiations, experts view event as the Bush administration's last chance to stabilize the region

Annapolis Mideast Conference

November 25, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- A crush of diplomats is converging for Tuesday's Middle East conference in Annapolis, most of them arriving from a region trembling with instability and growing extremism.

From Pakistan's political turbulence to Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions, from beheadings of police in Afghanistan to street assassinations in Gaza to airstrikes in Iraq, the level of confrontation and fear has never seemed higher in a region that has perfected the practice of suicide bombing and has already seen more than its share of conventional war.

Yet the dismaying context for the conference may be what drives it toward success. At the least, it has turned Annapolis into a high-stakes last gamble for the Bush administration.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said repeatedly in recent weeks, "Failure is not an option."

Rice and President Bush, who will formally open the proceedings with a dinner in Washington tomorrow night, say they hope that the conference will launch intensive new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that might, at last, resolve the bloody Arab-Israeli confrontation that has fueled the region's terror and destruction for at least six decades.

Many of the region's key figures, including Osama bin Laden and, privately, many of its diplomats, say the failure of the United States to move decisively on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has meant seven years of stalemate and rising frustration.

"It's been seven lean years, and I don't think the neglect of the peace process has done anything to stabilize the region - quite the reverse," said Daniel Levy, who was an Israeli negotiator during the last substantial negotiations, in 2000.

None of those at the center of the region's violence - Iran, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hezbollah extremists in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza - were invited to Annapolis. They will miss the back-corridor discussions that may be the most productive venues of the conference.

At the conference itself, any significant movement toward a comprehensive peace settlement will require painful concessions by Palestinians and Israelis, senior diplomats say, decisions that in the past have simply been politically unacceptable.

The negotiations must center on an agreement over how to share Jerusalem, redraw Israeli-Palestinian borders, handle Palestinian demands for ancestral lands inside Israel, and establish security guarantees for both sides.

No agreement, or even formal negotiation, is expected in Annapolis. But some movement is essential because the alternative, many say, will be to plunge the region deeper into despair and lend credence to those who argue that there is no value in cooperating with the United States.

"If there is a massive failure at Annapolis - if the conference yields absolutely nothing except a few general words, then obviously there will be progressive radicalization in the region," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was White House national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter.

Rice told reporters last week that she has "certainly given a lot of thought to the consequences of inaction.

"You really only have two choices: You can act or not act," she said. "And I think at this point the dangers of inaction are much greater than the dangers of acting."

Few thoughtful analysts outside the administration have voiced expectations of success at Annapolis.

"There are no optimists in the Middle East," said Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group last year. He described the situation in the region as "explosive, almost ready to spin out of control."

Hamilton, along with Brzezinski and six other foreign policy heavyweights, wrote to Bush and Rice last month warning that failure at Annapolis "risks devastating consequences" in the Middle East because it would undercut moderates.

At the center of much of the region's trouble is Iran, which Rice termed "the greatest threat to U.S. security interests in the world" because of "Iranian terrorism, Iranian repression at home, and the pursuit of nuclear weapons technology," as she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month.

Iran provided much of the weaponry used by Hezbollah in its war with Israel in the summer of 2006. Iran provides weapons and training to extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq, though the U.S. command said last week that Iranian arms shipments into Iraq have slowed. Iran also supports violent extremists in Gaza and elsewhere in the region.

The Bush administration also asserts that Iran is working to build nuclear weapons capability, and the U.S. is leading an international effort to pressure Iran to yield. U.S. officials are pressing to strengthen economic sanctions against Iran.

Yet Iran shows no sign of curtailing its nuclear activities, and other countries in the region, including Morocco, Egypt and most of the Gulf countries, have talked about following suit by starting their own nuclear programs.

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