Days away from the Annapolis peace parley, the glaring weaknesses of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are raising significant questions about the long-term viability of the renewed peace process and the consequences of failure.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who may have wanted to use the conference as a dramatic breakthrough in peacemaking with the Palestinians, finds his hands tied by hawks in his coalition government.
Constrained by Arab and Palestinian hard-liners alike, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is finding it difficult to make even minimal compromises that could advance the process.
The upshot seems to be that after months of pre-conference negotiations, the two sides could arrive in Annapolis without prior agreement on even a minimalist declaration spelling out a format and timetable for future talks.
Also worrisome is the idea that in the next few months, they may find themselves unable to make progress, discrediting the peace process and possibly setting off a new round of Palestinian violence.
Given the limited progress achieved by the Israeli and Palestinian sides so far, other players are making last-minute efforts to give the conference some meaning. Now some U.S. officials are suggesting that President Bush may use the conference to deliver a major policy speech outlining U.S. positions on key issues the parties have yet to address.
Olmert Backs Down
Israeli critics wary of Olmert capitulating to the hawks in his administration have been focusing on the longer-term consequences of failure. One of the worst possible outcomes, they say, would be the collapse of the idea of a two-state solution.
"There is a question mark over how long the paradigm of two states for two peoples will continue to be a viable option," said Ami Ayalon, a Labor Party minister in Olmert's security Cabinet and a former head of Israel's internal security service. "I don't want to speak in apocalyptic terms, but if there is no option of two states for two peoples, then there is no option for a Jewish and democratic Israel."
The hawks' campaign against Annapolis picked up steam with an ultimatum: Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai, leaders of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties, threatened to bolt the coalition if core issues like borders, Jerusalem and right of return for Palestinian refugees were so much as discussed at Annapolis.
Although part of the government coalition, the two parties then joined with the Likud-led opposition to pass a preliminary reading of a bill making any territorial concessions in Jerusalem subject to approval by a special two-thirds majority of the 120-member Knesset.
Afraid that his government might fall, Olmert backed down.
Whereas in September the prime minister had spoken of a "historic opportunity," and in October boldly promised to tackle all the most difficult issues, by November the conference had been reduced to a meeting that would last no more than a day and merely serve as a launching pad for further negotiations.
"We fell asleep on our watch," Ayalon told a meeting of the Labor Party on Sunday. "We did not do all we could have done to counteract the intolerable pressure from Lieberman and Shas."
Ayalon, however, believes that in the final analysis, Olmert is intent on making peace with the Palestinians. Ayalon says that with immense effort, a deal can be reached in 2008, before the end of the Bush presidency.
He argues that Olmert gave in to the hawks now because the process is in its infancy, and it would not make sense for him to lose his government before the peacemaking picks up momentum. If and when that process reaches fruition, Olmert would be in a position to dump the right-wingers in his coalition and push for an election that he could win on the basis of a peace deal, according to Ayalon.
By the same token, however, Israelis could throw out the premier minister if they judge him to have rushed too quickly into concessions with a partner that then proves to be unreliable -- as the Palestinians have in the past.
The post-Annapolis process is set to follow a format wherein negotiations over a permanent peace deal will take place while phase one of the road-map peace process is carried out. For the Palestinians, this means ending terror and dismantling terrorist militias.
On this, skeptics argue, the process is bound to fall, precisely because of Abbas' inherent weaknesses: Since he does not control Gaza, where his radical Hamas rivals hold sway, and is weak in the West Bank, then he will not be able to deliver security in either place.
Setback for Security?
If the post-Annapolis peace process fails, says Gidi Grinstein, president of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute and a member of ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's negotiating team with Palestinians between 1999 and 2001, radical forces in the Middle East will gain strength.
The relatively moderate Abbas leadership will go into decline along with Abbas' Fatah faction, and Hamas, which already controls Gaza, will gain in the West Bank.
The subsequent collapse of the Palestinian Authority, Grinstein warns, "may drag Israel into resuming full military, administrative and political responsibility for the Palestinian population in the West Bank, which would be a major setback for Israeli national security."
Like Ayalon, Grinstein says that support for a two-state solution will erode on the Palestinian street, and the international community may follow suit.
"After Oslo and Camp David, this is already the third attempt by Israelis and Palestinians to reach a permanent-status agreement based on a two-state solution," said Grinstein. "This time it is being carried out by what the international community perceives as a dream team on both sides. And if the dream team cannot get a deal on this, who can?"
In Grinstein's view, the Annapolis process seems to be playing into the hands of Hamas and the radicals.
"Hamas has not taken to the streets to undermine Annapolis," he explained, "because its political leadership is actually betting that the process will collapse on its own, with all the political dividends that would bring them."