This week's planned Mideast peace summit in Annapolis, Md., may be many different things, from a legitimate chance for progress to legacy enhancement by President Bush. But it is an effort that must be made.
A gathering such as this is always risky, in that failure can change regional dynamics in undesirable ways. And failure is a real possibility -- with skeptical Arab nations apparently pressured into participation by the White House, expectations in the Middle East seem low. But the risks of doing nothing are also great. The Bush administration knows that, because until recently doing nothing largely has been its seven-year policy.
In that time, Yasser Arafat has died, Ariel Sharon has had a stroke, Israel launched a war in Lebanon, and Hamas won a Parliamentary majority and took over Gaza by force. The administration's response has been to focus on Iraq, which it viewed as the linchpin to the Middle East, and assume that creating a democracy there would make peace flow across the region. It hasn't worked.
That is also a reason to harbor doubts about the likelihood of any great success at the Annapolis summit. To suddenly turn to diplomacy less than a year before the president's successor is elected carries a whiff of desperation. The participants, including Saudi Arabia and perhaps even Syria, understand that, and it gives them a strategic advantage -- or they can just wait to deal with the next president.
What's more, it is not only Bush who is weak. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is under investigation for corruption that predates his leadership role, are both diminished politically. How can politically weak leaders produce a strong result?
Yet other factors are in the wind, as well. Most Arab countries also fear the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, a subtext of the summit. And those countries recognize that the fracturing of Palestinian leadership, between Abbas' restrained Palestinian Authority and the overtly violent Hamas, creates additional unwelcome instability in the region. Abbas on Thursday said it was time to "bring down" Hamas in Gaza.
With so potent a cocktail of influences, it's hard to predict what a summit will produce. Given the duration and intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the safe bet is on "very little."
Yet it is critical to try. Stability in the Middle East is becoming ever more crucial as the oppressive regime in Iran seeks nuclear power.
And there is this observation, expressed by Shibley Telhami, a scholar with the Brookings Institution: "Even if the prospects for peace seem small, most breakthroughs in history come unexpectedly, often through surprising acts of leadership."
From his lips to God's ear.