The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has invited all the main Middle East regional players except Iran to Annapolis, Maryland, this week in an effort to get serious peace talks going for the first time in seven years.
How did we get here?
The summit was the one item of news in President George Bush's speech on the Middle East in July, in the wake of the bloody infighting which ended with Hamas's seizure of internal control in Gaza. The idea – crude or not – was that the subsequent outlawing of Hamas by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, provided a new "opportunity" for negotiations on a two-state solution to the conflict with the emergency, Hamas-free, government Abbas had appointed in the West Bank. And the summit was to kick-start those negotiations.
So are we going to see the framework of a deal on Tuesday?
No. The two sides are unlikely even to engage gears in Annapolis on the big issues which need to be resolved: Jerusalem, borders, and the families of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. Even if there were to be a joint Israeli-Palestinian statement on Tuesday, it wouldn't be much more than an agreement to talk about the key issues after the conference, in the the hope of some kind of deal being made by the end of the Bush presidency.
And what are the chances of that?
This is certainly the first real push for a deal since the collapse of negotiations at Camp David in 2000 and the bloodshed of the past seven years. But there are huge obstacles. Hamas, which has resisted almost two years of international pressure to recognise Israel, won't be at Annapolis or in any talks that follow. Yet controlling Gaza as it does, and with a substantial if currently subdued presence in the West Bank, it remains a formidable force which would have to be contained if any agreement between Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, could be turned into a real peace plan.
So the problem is all on the Palestinian side?
Hardly. Olmert may well believe that talks with Abbas afford a better chance for a two-state solution than anyone who could succeed him. But he is beset by forces who want to prevent him making a deal, let alone implement it: the right-wing parties threatening to walk out of his coalition, the 250,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank who want to stay put, and quite possibly his own, apparently deeply sceptical, Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, who wants to succeed him as Prime Minister.
How can these problems be overcome?
With great difficulty. Much now depends on President Bush, who has shown little interest until recently in solving the conflict; and whether – after the debacle in Iraq and in the face of a possible confrontation with Iran – he now really needs to offer something to his Arab allies. Palestinians who have been in and out of the State Department recently believe Rice is serious, and even that she has the backing of Bush.
Should we be looking for any surprises at Annapolis?
The Syrians could be the ones to watch. Assuming they show up, the US will find it less easy to continue regarding them as associate members of the "Axis of Evil". Given their policies towards Iran, both the US and Israel may have an interest in detaching Damascus from Tehran. Some Israeli analysts argue it would be better to talk first to President Bashir Assad, who might deliver, while Abbas might not. But the question is still whether Olmert would have the political strength to pay the price for Syria's ending support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad: handing back the Golan Heights, seized in 1967.
Further reading: 'Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories' by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Nation Books, £17.99Reuse content