A large shadow cast by an absent Iran
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland: The Middle East peace conference here on Tuesday was officially about ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But there was an unspoken goal just below the surface: stopping the rising regional influence of Iran and Islamic radicalism.
That is why, despite enormous skepticism about the ability of the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a final peace treaty, there is enormous relief among the many Sunni Arab countries in attendance that the United States has re-engaged in what they see as the larger and more important battle for Muslim hearts and minds.
"The Arabs have come here not because they love the Jews or even the Palestinians," said an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They came because they need a strategic alliance with the United States against Iran."
Hovering over Annapolis are deep anxieties over the challenge from a resurgent Shiite and non-Arab Iran, with its nuclear program and its successful allies and proxies in southern Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Those Arab nations fear that the tide of history is moving away from them, and that they are losing their own youth to religious militancy.
"There is a genuine concern and fear among political classes in the Arab world that the Islamic trend hasn't reached its plateau," said Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya television. "They worry that Iran and its allies act as if this may be the beginning of the end of America's moment in the Middle East."
Those concerns are linked in the minds of the region's leaders to the Palestinian issue, he said. "They want to try for a resolution to an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has always been the focal point for mobilization of Islamic and radical groups," he said.
Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, put it this way: "This is the summit of our hope and their fear. It's our hope that at long last the Arab world will understand that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not the core and can be solved, and their fear of Islamic extremism and Iran, which they call the Persian threat. This is what brought them here."
In his speech here, President George W. Bush listed three reasons why he thought "the time is right" for Annapolis. First, he said, "because Palestinians and Israelis have leaders who are determined to achieve peace." But second, he said, "because a battle is under way for the future of the Middle East, and we must not cede victory to the extremists." His third reason was an extension of the second, "because the world understands the urgency of supporting these negotiations."
In his own speech, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, took a similar tack, addressing Bush directly and saying, "We do recognize — and I presume that you share with me this view — that the absence of hope and overwhelming despair would feed extremism."
The Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, was blunt. "Stagnation in the peace process has increased the appeal of extremist ideologies," he said. "Feelings of despair and frustration have reached a dangerously high level."
Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor of government at the University of Maryland, said that the fear of growing militancy and radicalism, fed by the model of Iran and Al Qaeda, has brought the Arabs together in the hope that a new urgency will persuade Washington to try to settle the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
"They're very worried about militancy and their public's great sympathy with Hezbollah and Hamas," Telhami said, speaking by telephone from Cairo. "They were all stunned by the Hamas takeover of Gaza" in June.
The countries of the gulf in particular, he said, "are worried about regional stability, about their kids and about jeopardizing their extraordinary economic power." The moderate Arab states are "vulnerable to militancy because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq, and they want to reduce their vulnerability."
Aaron David Miller, a former negotiator for the Clinton administration, said that while he applauded the effort at Annapolis, he doubted that the Bush administration "has the will and skill" to pull off a peace treaty. "The chances for a Palestinian state in George Bush's term are slim to none," he said. But the Annapolis gathering does have important regional significance.
"For the Arab centrists, the new Middle East is a nasty one, and the Palestinian issue resonates emotionally and deeply," he said.
So despite low Arab expectations, too, Arabs came as a way to commit Washington, as both Saudi Arabia and Jordan have been demanding since 2001, to press for an Israeli-Palestinian peace and begin a larger regional process through it. "Bush will be gone in a year," Miller said. "But the Arabs want to lock the U.S. into some kind of negotiating process in which the next president is also locked."
Representative Gary Ackerman, Democrat of New York, put it pithily. "Everybody at Annapolis has something in common," he said. "It's not love of Israel or the Palestinians. It's fear of Iran. Everyone needs a relative to protect them from Iran."