Originally published in January 2008

Last month, I spent seven days in an Israeli living room, sitting “shiva” with my family to mourn the loss of a relative. Hundreds of people came to visit. Hundreds of conversations unfolded on almost any topic imaginable. One of the purposes of the shiva is to distract mourners from their loss through engagement with the living in conversations on the mundane.

Although it was shortly after the Annapolis peace conference and although one of the days of the shiva, December 12, was when bilateral final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority officially started, the Israeli-Palestinian issue was not discussed by any of those who came to comfort us. Only once did it come up on the margins of a conversation with a friend who works in the southern town of Sderot and talked about ducking Qassam rockets. But that was it. On the 12th, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth, mentioned the formal opening of final-status negotiations in a short story on page 6. The next day, there was no story at all.

Apathy hardly seems to be a strong enough word to describe the way Israelis regard the Annapolis process. Israelis have been steadily turning off, tuning out, and dropping away from politics in recent years. Corrupt politicians, inept leaders, and ongoing violence have bred contempt for the political process. Their cynicism is most evident when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While most Israelis support a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, most also believe that such a solution is not feasible in the foreseeable future, nor a matter of urgency, and therefore peace efforts are an exercise in futility.

That skepticism ― some would say political nihilism ― is mirrored on the Palestinian side. There too, most believe that while a two-state solution is desirable, it is not yet viable ― at least not in the foreseeable future. 

This deep-seated pessimism has become a serious challenge facing the peace process. It severely challenges the ability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take the immediate steps that the Roadmap for peace prescribes toward resuming the peace process.

In a way, this public opinion challenge joins the “traditional” intractable problems of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and West Bank settlements that the peace process aims to resolve. The Annapolis approach suggests tackling these issues head-on, setting the end of 2008 as a self-imposed “soft” deadline for achieving a final settlement. This new approach, however, makes a distinction between achieving a peace accord and implementing it. An agreement between the two sides, according to the statement of understanding achieved in Annapolis, would only be implemented when the requirements of the first phase of the internationally sponsored Roadmap are met.

The self-imposed deadline and the linkage between the Roadmap and the implementation of a future agreement could serve as an incentive for robust and sincere mutual Israeli-Palestinian engagement toward an agreement. Unfortunately, these new elements are not enough to get this kind of engagement going. Neither is another new element introduced by the Annapolis process: the supportive role that the Arab world is playing in the drive toward peace.

These new elements are necessary, but not sufficient, because there is so little trust in the Annapolis process. Amazingly, despite the overall positive atmosphere surrounding November’s Annapolis summit, despite the presence of so many Arab states, polls showed that more Israelis considered the conference a failure than those who said it was a success. On November 28, the day after the summit, Yedioth Ahronoth ran a banner main headline celebrating a “New Beginning.” The next day, Yedioth’s front page featured a snap-poll showing that 50% of Israelis considered Annapolis a failure while only 18% considered it a success. There were similar polling numbers on the Palestinian side.

Under such circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect either the Israeli or the Palestinian leadership to respond to popular pressure. The feeble popular pressure that may exist is not likely to create the critical mass needed for decisive government action.

These circumstances call out for an assertive, active American role.

For the Annapolis process to yield results, the Bush Administration, during the last year of the President’s term, must act upon its assertion that the creation of a Palestinian state is not only in the interest of Palestinians and Israelis but a key national security interest of the United States. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been making this point in recent weeks. But their rhetoric must be bolstered by their policy.

The administration should focus on two chief goals. One is to facilitate the fulfillment of both sides’ Roadmap obligations. The Bush Administration should go beyond demanding the fulfillment of Palestinian law enforcement and an Israeli freeze on settlement construction. It should provide incentives, guarantees, expertise, and support in an effort to immediately reduce friction on the ground.

While trying to reduce this friction, the administration should focus on another goal: to insure that the rough routine of Israeli-Palestinian relations ― violence, settlement activity, terrorism, and collective punishment ― does not impede the negotiations aimed at resolving the “core” issues of the conflict: refugees, Jerusalem, borders, settlements, and water. In the past, bilateral negotiations often were held hostage to violent militants whose aim was to torpedo the peace process. This dynamic must not repeat itself, if the Annapolis process is to succeed.

This process is in dire need of credibility. The publics on both sides will consider it credible only if they see Israeli and Palestinian leaders acting with determination. Israelis and Palestinians need to see results. Washington must help create momentum by persistently rewarding positive performance with positive reinforcement.

As the process gains momentum, it hopefully will generate the trust and hope on both sides of the Green Line that are essential for its long-term sustainability. But such a momentum cannot be taken for granted. It has a chance of evolving only if this administration ― and most probably the one that will follow ― act as a superpower should act when pursuing a national security goal.