Summit Groundwork Seen As Too Little, Too Late


Despite tepid support for the Bush administration’s upcoming Annapolis summit, many Jewish leaders and some politicians are warning that insufficient groundwork by the Bush administration could turn the meeting into a meaningless photo-op — or the trigger for a new intifada.

“They have a very active social secretary, calling the parties, but they haven’t been at all hands on,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I./Queens) on Monday as the State Department was finalizing invitations to Israel, the Palestinians, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and several other nations.

“My concern from the outset was that there wasn’t a lot of being planning done,” said Ackerman, author of a congressional letter signed by more than 135 colleagues praising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for trying to re-energize
U.S. peacemaking efforts but suggesting additional steps, including expanded Palestinian aid, to ensure the meeting’s success.

Ackerman cited continuing uncertainty about who would attend the meeting, scheduled for early next week, and what would be expected of countries like Saudi Arabia.

“There should be specific expectations of what the role of the invited cheering squad should be,” he said. “We should make it clear we expect them to lean on [the Palestinians] to fulfill their obligations. There’s no evidence that’s been done.”

A longtime pro-Israel lobbyist said that the administration has been scaling back both expectations and its own commitment to the meeting out of concern it may be a costly failure.

“The administration is scared to death of being too invested in Annapolis because they don’t want to be blamed if it doesn’t work,” this source said. “So far, it’s all [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice. Where is the president? If they were serious, he’d be much more a part of this.”

Washington sources say President Bush is not expected to follow Bill Clinton’s 2000 Camp David model and take an active part in the discussions.

Concerns about administration preparation and involvement have only grown as Palestinian leaders have upped their demands and thrown likely deal breakers into the mix, including an insistence they cannot accept Israel as a Jewish state and a demand for a detailed plan for implementing the so-called road map for peace after the conference, with little official response from Washington.

“Reasonable people can be skeptical about the administration’s preparations” for the conference, said Martin Raffel, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).

But Raffel expressed the bind many mainstream Jewish leaders now find themselves in: the Annapolis conference represents the only glimmer of hope on the Mideast horizon.

“You have to ask: what are the alternatives? There is now a Palestinian Authority, with Abbas and [Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad at the head, that Israel regards as a legitimate interlocutors in trying to advance the peace process. There is agreement that the international community has to find ways to strengthen moderate forces in the Palestinian camp.”

Seymour Reich, president of the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum (IPF), said one thing missing in administration planning is a “public agenda” that could give the meeting focus.

Instead, he said, the meeting has been an exercise in steadily diminishing expectations. It began as a major meeting intended to jump directly to critical “final status” issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees; now, it is intended only as the public launch of a new version of the old Mideast road map.

This week, Olmert told his cabinet that it is “not a conference for negotiations.”

But Reich put some of the blame for the shrinking summit on the parties themselves.

“To a degree, Rice’s hands are tied because she can’t get Olmert and Abbas to agree on general principles for the talks,” he said. “Without that, she really can’t move forward.”

The widespread belief that the summit is unlikely to produce any breakthroughs has muted the expected opposition from right-of-center groups.

“Nobody expects anything to come out of this,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which opposes Palestinian statehood and new territorial concessions by Israel. “There haven’t been major protests because nobody believes anything’s going to happen.”

Groups that once planned to lobby against possible agreements at Annapolis have shifted their sights to what could come next.

“It’s become clearer and clear that [a breakthrough] won’t happen at Annapolis, but may simply launch a process,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director for the Orthodox Union and a leader in a mostly-Orthodox coalition created recently to prevent negotiations over territorial concessions on Jerusalem at the summit. “So our focus has shifted to what comes next, because we believe Jerusalem is the ultimate issue.”

In Washington, only a sort drive from the Maryland capital that will host the summit, there has been scant interest — mostly because both peace process supporters and opponents in Congress now believe the summit will, at best, lead to resumed and probably extended negotiations over the stalled Mideast road map.

But a minor flap has erupted around Ackerman’s letter commending Rice and urging additional international aid for the Palestinians.

The letter, co-authored by Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), has been promoted heavily by pro-peace process groups, including American for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum.

But the issue has raised the hackles of some top supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is supporting the letter.

According to a JTA report, a top AIPAC donor — Las Vegas magnate and Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson — compared the lobby’s support for increased aid to the Palestinians with aiding Israel’s suicide.

“If someone is going to jump off a bridge,” he said, “it is incumbent upon their friends to dissuade them.”

Most Jewish leaders discount the idea Washington is tightening the screws on Jerusalem to extract concessions to the Palestinians as a prelude to the conference, despite Olmert’s promise this week to freeze new settlement construction, remove some illegal outposts and release Palestinian prisoners.

One pro-Israel activist here described “growing vigilance” on the part of U.S. authorities on settlements and other issues, but not real “pressure.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that he doubts strong U.S. pressure has produced Israeli concessions like a freeze on settlement construction.

“I think Israel has promised that so many times, I don’t think it comes out of pressure,” he said.

Foxman, too, said he worries that the Bush administration has set in motion a process it hasn’t backed by aggressive, comprehensive preparation.

“There was from Day One the feeling that this summit was premature,” he said. “You have to lay a foundation first; you have to know what the beginning and end are. It’s still not even clear who will be there and who won’t. There was concern it wasn’t thought out, but just a gesture, a happening.”

Have his high-level administration contacts done anything to change that view?

“No, the anxieties continue,” Foxman aid. “There hasn’t been much in the way of allaying our concerns that this could explode. If you raise the expectations of the Palestinians and they are not met, the result could be a new intifada. It’s happened in the past.”

Mostly, Jewish leaders were trying to maintain a positive attitude even as questions persisted about the administration’s preparations for the downsized conference.

Asked if he thought the administration has done enough to make the conference a success, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said, “I would like to believe it has. But there are big gaps of information, and we’re just a few days away. So it remains a bit of a puzzle.”

While Jewish leaders fret about the consequences of a failure at Annapolis, there was a bit of good news from the Anti-Defamation League, which this week reported that support for Israel remains strong among the American electorate.

Sixty-five percent of Americans agree that Israel is a “strong, reliable U.S. ally” and the same proportion say Israel is serious about reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, according to the yearly survey.

A majority view Israel positively, but at 58 percent, that number was far below the ratings Americans have for Great Britain (75 percent) and Japan (69 percent).

In a less positive note, 65 percent believe America is more likely to be targeted for new terrorist attacks because of its support for Israel. But 57 percent said that support should continue — even if it means a greater risk of attack.