The Annapolis Middle East meeting, much like expected, marked the start of a very fragile peace process. If anything was achieved at Annapolis itself, it is that a sense of momentum is building; the next meeting takes place as soon as Dec. 12.
U.S. President George W. Bush has pledged to be directly involvement in the peace negotiations. The more direct involvement of Bush follows after six years of a stand off approach by the US leader who had seen his predecessor Bill Clinton try and fail miserably.
But the fourteen remaining months that Bush is still in office are now firmly tied to the peace process. Bush himself is going to be mostly challenged in finding a deadline for securing a deal before he leaves office.
Analysts say that despite the positive development that a peace process is actually being conducted, the three leaders involved in it, all face insecurities which could undermine their effort.
During the conference, which was held at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bush read a joint statement by the Palestinians and Israelis. The document had been negotiated over the past year with great difficulty and final agreement was reached only minutes before the meeting started. Despite the difficulties in getting the statement worded and signed by the two sides, analysts say that the core issues that divide them were omitted; peace negotiations are going to be very thorny.
Israel and the Palestinians committed themselves to send negotiating teams to a new session in Jerusalem on December 12. At the end of the conference, there was of course the awkward moment; the handshake. Olmert and Abbas shook hands much the same way Rabin and Arafat did in the early 1990s, stood in front of highly critical Arab leaders, but nevertheless having to transmit a positive message to the rest of the world.
Attendees to the conference included Saudi Arabia and Syria. Both countries had hesitated whether to accept their invitation until just before the meeting started. These two countries are heavyweights in the region and their mere presence was a huge sign of support.
The Middle East region compared to when the peace process first took off over a decade ago, is now in a slightly different situation because of the Iranian influence and the US especially hopes to benefit from the changed balance. Arab countries are likely to play the growing Iranian power base card. Saudi Arabia and Syria’s hesitance to join the conference were signalling this.
In this sense, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might be faced with reprisals due to las year’s Lebanon war. At home, his right wing government coalition parties are loath making concessions and have openly said so. Mahmoud Abbas lost control of Gaza to Hamas just before the summer and is also extremely weak.
Russian news agencies got a scoop on their way home, quoting the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who told them that Russia will host the next Middle East peace conference. "We have yet to agree on the timing and agenda of this meeting," Lavrov told reporters traveling with him on his way home from the Annapolis conference.