The upcoming peace conference in Annapolis, Md., is unleashing a spate of emotions, ranging from euphoria, enthusiasm, wariness and aversion to downright paranoia.
Those who want to see it happen fear its failure; those who oppose it dread that it will take place. And skeptics, steeped in the lessons of past experience, doubt its utility. These contradictory responses share a common thread: an overblown notion of what a gathering of this sort can accomplish.
The prospect of a U.S.-hosted and internationally sponsored gathering devoted to resuming the diplomatic process has, in itself, set in motion a series of activities with far-reaching consequences. First, and perhaps foremost, a climate of communication -- albeit still hesitant, suspicious and guarded -- has been fostered, yielding multiple interactions between Israelis and Palestinians on a variety of levels.
Beyond the high-profile and, by now, regularized meetings between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the negotiating teams charged with drafting the conference document are now busily at work. So, too, are less well-known but equally significant professional cooperative efforts in different spheres, including administration, taxation, finance, tourism and security coordination. These are being buttressed by a multiplicity of backdoor initiatives and joint civil-society ventures. Alongside the continued violence and repression, a great deal of talking is, in fact, taking place on the ground.
Surveys reveal a majority of support (admittedly slim) for the conference within both Israeli and Palestinian society. They also show solid pockets of dissent. Indeed, for the first time in many years, there is an ongoing debate not only on the advisability of negotiations and their format, but also on their content.
Accompanying this noticeable momentum is a climate amenable to engaging the other -- an indication of a willingness to explore diplomatic options, if not always to embrace their direction.
What is less obvious -- although perhaps more telling -- is that discussions continue despite vociferous calls from dissidents on both sides to impose preconditions aimed at preventing their continuation (such as the total cessation of Palestinian violence on the one hand, or the removal of Israeli constraints on Palestinian life that have led to a humanitarian crisis on the other). There seems to be a growing realization that, although concrete gestures may facilitate negotiations, only a political agreement can guarantee the kind of relief that comes with true human security.
This dynamic may be broken should the Annapolis meeting not take place according to schedule. Spoilers on the Israeli and Palestinian extremes are bent on preventing its occurrence. These elements oppose any agreement to end the conflict. They have started campaigns to sway public opinion not only on the merits of their case, but also on the inadequacies and incapacities of the participating partners. They may yet resort to violence.
The leadership vacuum is, undeniably, a real obstacle to diplomatic progress. However, it would be a mistake to think that the removal of present incumbents will derail the process completely.
More worrisome is the prospect of a failed conference.
Expectations, therefore, must be defined realistically. The measure of success in Annapolis will be the ability to ensure that it's not a one-time event. It must, therefore, carve out a trajectory for negotiations with very clear and set parameters.
The conference should at least create a rhythm of discussion, which can help to maintain the initial momentum it may generate.
It can also work to reignite the active involvement of the international community, grant legitimacy to the negotiating process, and even allay some of the reservations rife in the by-now hardened Israeli and Palestinian public. At best, the conference may endow time-based negotiations with a robustness of their own, making it easier to separate them from the political fate of those who brought them about.
A sober understanding of what can be realized in Annapolis is essential at this sensitive crossroads.
Failure can have dire consequences for those involved and the region as a whole. Success will not end violence or yield a final settlement. A plan for a series of meetings that can lead to the conclusion of a firm treaty within the next year is, however, worth all the effort, ingenuity and energy now being devoted to this end.
Naomi Chazan is a former member of the Knesset for the Meretz Party.