As Washington labors to make something of its upcoming Annapolis peace conference, it is worth noting one historical marker that sheds light on what it takes to break through the barriers making the Mideast conflict so intractable.
Thirty years ago this month, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stunned the world and upended the dangerous Mideast status quo with a trip to Jerusalem and speech to the Knesset, starting the process that resulted in the 1978 Camp David accords.
The peace that followed has been anything but warm and Egypt can hardly be called an ally of the Jewish state, but the fact remains that Israel no longer fears attacks from its most dangerous enemy and no blood has been shed on its southern border in three decades.
Sadat’s willingness to defy his Arab allies and make peace with the despised Jewish state points to what is so tragically lacking in today’s Arab leadership: the courage to put national interest — starting with peace — above rhetoric, ideology and political self interest.
Many leaders — Syrian President Bashar Assad comes to mind — now say they want peace, but demonstrate nothing but fear and ambivalence when it comes to giving substance to their words. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may be “moderate” by Mideast standards, but his promises have often been undermined by indecisive, timid action or no action at all.
Other regional powers, starting with Saudi Arabia, now say they accept Israel, but dare not end support for groups whose only goal is Israel’s annihilation.
Only when Arab leaders follow Sadat’s example and decide that ending a conflict that has brought only misery to the Palestinians and chaos to the region is worth personal and political sacrifice will negotiations have a chance for success.
That brings us to Annapolis. With a divided population and weak leadership on the Palestinian side, perhaps this is a fool’s errand. The Bush administration, for all its good intentions, seems to have ignored the need to establish a firm base for important negotiations. We hope the summit — expected to take place next week, although that could easily change — starts Israel and her neighbors down the arduous road to a genuine peace.
But that is unlikely to happen without Palestinian leaders who see peace as a priority worth risking their lives for, and without support from other regional powers that talk peace but refuse to back up their words with courageous actions.