was a 2006-2007 Islamic Civilizations Fulbright scholar, based in Cairo
The Annapolis Conference heralded a new strategy in Middle East peacemaking. Whereas conventional wisdom held that domestically strong Israeli and Arab leaders were a prerequisite for fruitful negotiations, Annapolis attempted to work backward, using negotiations to strengthen two very weak leaders.
Yet this strategy is doomed: The very nature of each party's weakness makes mutually strengthening negotiations impossible. In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's anemic approval ratings and shaky governing coalition will prevent him from compromising on the most contentious - and important - issues, especially the fate of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, in the Palestinian territories, President Mahmoud Abbas' military weakness - a consequence of Hamas' recent seizure of Gaza and political successes - will hamper his ability to deliver on security for Israel. Most damagingly, these failures will be mutually reinforcing: Abbas' inability to stop Hamas from firing rockets will further undermine Olmert's ability to budge on Jerusalem, and vice versa.
If this renewed peace process is to succeed, a third party to negotiations could be critical to helping each side overcome its respective weakness. With some creative diplomacy, the inclusion of a second Arab participant in peace talks would be beneficial. For the Palestinians, this party would provide security coordination for forces loyal to Abbas, add diplomatic weight to their demands for a capital in East Jerusalem, and improve the credibility of peace talks among Palestinians, thus boosting Abbas' authority to negotiate. For Israel, this party would add to the diplomatic and security incentives tied to peace with the Palestinians, provide a broader front for rolling back Iranian regional influence and Hamas' ascendancy, and, ideally, court the Israeli public to arouse greater support for negotiations.
In this trilateral venture, the United States would have a critical role to play. First, it would determine which Arab state to include, offering a variety of economic and diplomatic incentives, while padding the Arab front against Iran. Syria provides one option: Its unexpected participation in Annapolis signaled its desire to enter the Western orbit, while the formula for Syrian-Israeli peace has been largely spelled out in previous negotiations. Saudi Arabia provides another option: Olmert has demonstrated a willingness to discuss the terms of the 2002 Saudi peace plan, while the Saudis, possessing a weak military, are among the Arab states most concerned by Iran's pursuit of nuclear power.
Second, the United States would develop strategies through which the second Arab party could strengthen Israeli and Palestinian leadership ahead of negotiations. To boost Olmert, the United States could encourage the second Arab party to allow people-to-people exchanges with Israelis in neutral countries, offer a far-reaching program of economic partnerships, and, most critically, address the Israeli parliament. To boost Abbas, the U.S. could design a mechanism for security coordination between the Palestinians and the additional Arab party, offering both parties military funding for their cooperation. Moreover, the strong, engaged support of another Arab state for Abbas' security efforts would undercut the legitimacy of Hamas' control in Gaza, and further boost Abbas as a credible commander in chief.
For its participation in peace talks, the additional Arab party would stand to benefit substantially. Beyond strengthening the Arab front against Iran through its cooperation in a U.S.-led effort, this party would cement its image as a leader in the Arab world, and accrue substantial diplomatic goodwill among Western states. Peace would further mean enhanced regional stability, significant international investment, and, particularly in Syria's case, a sudden upsurge in tourism.
This is hardly to suggest that a trilateral approach to the peace process is destined to succeed. Far from it: The Saudi prince who attended the Annapolis conference announced his refusal to shake Israelis' hands, meaning that he is unlikely to address the Israeli parliament any time soon. Meanwhile, Israel recently attacked an alleged nuclear-development site in Syria, suggesting that the Israeli-Syrian relationship has leaned more toward war than peace as of late.
Yet, if it materialized, a trilateral approach would give Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations a substantial push, strengthening both sides' leaders and raising incentives for the success of peace talks. At the very least, it provides an alternative to the dead-end strategy of bilateralism, which provides no means through which Olmert and Abbas can overcome their weakness and credibly negotiate.