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After Annapolis - the Limits of American Power

8. August 2008
Von Shlomo Avineri
By Shlomo Avineri

As was to be expected, the Annapolis meeting did not bring about a peace agreement, not even a common declaration of principles. And the much praised Syrian participation, just like the more significant Saudi presence, did not go beyond symbolism. And yet, President Bush should get credit for bringing together, for the first time in seven years, Israeli and Palestinian leaders and for getting their agreement to renew negotiations. This is a minor, albeit significant change in the Middle East environment: The contending sides are negotiating and express a credible will to move towards an agreement, even if a final status agreement may elude them now.

Assessing the forthcoming rounds of negotiations, in which the United States will necessarily play the major role, previous American successes – and failures – should be recalled. The future does not necessarily have to look like the past, but some indications about what is, and what is not possible, may be gleaned from past experience. Contrary to the widespread view it is not enough for the White House to "put its foot down". This is not true – not in the Middle East, nor in Cyprus, Kosovo, or Bosnia.

Decades of US involvement in Middle East peace making suggest that there are two scenarios in which the US can be enormously successful – and, per contra, if neither of these scenarios is in place, American efforts will end in failure.

The first scenario is a war in the region, or an acute danger of war, or the danger that an existing conflict may escalate into a wider, regional conflict. In such a case, a concerted US effort pinpointed on a clearly visible and ascertainable result, can succeed. Examples:

  • In the last days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel, after recuperating from its initial setbacks, crossed the Suez Canal, surrounded most of the Egyptian Army in Sinai and was on kilometre 101 of the road to Cairo (as well as menacingly near Damascus), one brisk US ultimatum stopped the Israel Defence Forces in their track and brought about an immediate ceasefire.

  • During the 1982 Lebanon War, after Syrian agents assassinated the Israeli-backed Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel, Israel was on the verge of occupying Muslim West Beirut – which would have brought Syria into the war. Two phone calls from President Reagan to Prime Minister Begin prevented such an Israeli move and effectively brought to an end Israel’s attempt to create a client regime in Beirut.

  • During the first Gulf War of 1991, when the US failed to stop Iraqi missiles from being fired at Israeli cities, Israel intended a massive air attack on Iraqi targets. The Shamir government was then clearly told by the White House that it opposed such a move, and effectively threatened to shoot down Israeli planes. Israel abandoned its plans.

In all these cases, US intervention was aimed at rapidly achievable, clearly verifiable aims, which could be monitored and carried out in a very short time – and the US succeeded.

The second scenario is the opposite: When negotiations are taking place between two sides that are both committed to an agreement, yet some issues have still to be resolved, the US can use its clout to make them go the extra mile or inch and reach a final agreement. Examples:

  • In the wake of President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977, both Israel and Egypt negotiated – bilaterally, and without American help – a full peace agreement. This involved an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, Egyptian recognition of Israel, and the normalisation of diplomatic relations. Yet there still remained a number of issues, both in form and substance, on which both sides could not agree. President Carter then invited Sadat and Begin to Camp David, and with the help of both carrots and sticks made them go the extra mile.

  • Something similar happened during the 1993 negotiations between Israel and the PLO. Both sides agreed at Oslo (Washington did not even know they were negotiating) on mutual recognition and Palestinian autonomy. Yet they could not agree on a final document. President Clinton's invitation of both sides to Washington clinched the negotiations and brought about the historical Oslo and Cairo Accords.
    In these cases the US neither started, nor did it direct the negotiations. Both sides made political and strategic decisions on their own but needed the extra push to make the talks ultimately a success.

Where neither of these two scenarios is in place, the United States can do very little. Without the political will of the local parties to reach an agreement, negotiations will go nowhere. Examples:

  • In 2000, at Camp David, it was obvious that there was no political will to reach an agreement. Regardless of who was to blame – it became clear that even a US President can lead a horse to water but can't make him drink.

  • The Bush Road Map did not lead anywhere. The reason: Despite occasional words of support for the initiative there was a lack of political will both on the Israeli and Palestinian side (Sharon and Arafat, respectively),.

Any proposed agreement spread out over a period of years would need constant US monitoring. This is something no US President can do on a daily basis. Hence even an agreement in principle will fail over time, should either side lose the political will to implement it – or if it were signed under duress, with no serious intention to carry it out.

Where, within these co-ordinates, does Annapolis figure? It is obviously somewhere in between. On both sides there is political will (if, for the moment, we disregard Hamas' control of Gaza). Yet whether this political will can be translated into political action is very much the question, as, at present, both sides are being represented by weak governments. This may very well mean that the time is not yet ripe for an overall agreement.

Both sides, though, appear to have not only the will, but probably also the political ability, to carry out more limited steps: on the Israeli side the dismantling of illegal outpost, stopping further settlement activity, lifting many of the travel limitations, and doing away with a significant number of road blocks and other impediments of daily Palestinian life – on the Palestinian side, putting their act together in terms of effective control of armed activity against Israeli civilians and successfully curbing armed militias and gangs.

The working groups on specific issues that have been set up can, by reporting to a follow-up meeting to the Annapolis conference, help create a better atmosphere for future negotiations which may then, slowly and gradually, begin to address the 'core issues'.
Such progress, though apparently low-key, would be a great advance over all the failures since Camp David 2000 and the ensuing breakdown of meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was Director-General of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.


Nahostkonferenz Annapolis

Die Nahostkonferenz am 27. November 2007 in Annapolis war ein weiterer Versuch, einen Weg zu einer gerechte Zwei-Staaten-Lösung zwischen Israel und Palästina zu finden. Die Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung hat Autoren und Autorinnen aus der Region, aus Deutschland und den USA um ihre Einschätzung gebeten.