Dr. Robert Danin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, writes about his views of the Annapolis Conference that took place November 27, 2007 in Annapolis, Maryland.
Though the United States has played the leading role as mediator in Arab-Israeli conflict for decades, Annapolis was the first international conference on the Middle East hosted on American soil. As the host, the United States was responsible for much of what transpired, from structuring the form and content of the conference, to orchestrating the participation of nearly fifty delegations that came from overseas to the day long event--no simple feat, given that some of the countries participating in the conference are still technically at war with one another.
One of the most significant challenges was in trying to help the Israelis and Palestinians reach agreement on a joint understanding, on which they had been working for months without success.
When the Palestinian and Israeli delegations arrived in Washington on the Sunday before the Annapolis conference, they still hadn't agreed on a text. American officials spent the next two days criss-crossing Washington to consult with both sides on how to bridge their differences.
With the conference set to convene at 11 a.m., Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas met with the President in Annapolis early on Tuesday morning. American, Israeli and Palestinian officials had worked through most of the night trying to reach a shared understanding. On Tuesday morning, with the strong encouragement of the President and Secretary Rice, the two sides managed to reach agreement on a joint understanding to launch negotiations on the full range of issues between them.
Many of the conference participants were clearly feeling anxious. British Foreign Secretary Miliband captured the sentiment, when he noted that in 1993 at the signing of the Oslo Accords "the late Prime Minister Rabin talked of an atmosphere of hope tinged with apprehension; today in the region there is an atmosphere of apprehension tinged with occasional hope." Having seen an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement within reach before, only to see it cascade into six years of violence, terror, and bloodshed, such apprehensions are understandable. As one member of an Arab delegation, a friend for a number of years, said to me as he arrived: "if today doesn't go well, we are all going to be in big trouble!" I noted that responsibility for producing results was shared by all of us.
But all the anxiety and worry that the participants brought to the conference largely dissipated as President Bush, with President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert seated by his side, read out the text of the agreement to the participants. The President announced the launching of negotiations towards the establishment of a Palestinian state, with the goal of reaching an agreement prior to the end of 2008.
Upon the conclusion of the President's remarks, the hall erupted in applause. President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert appeared visibly pleased—and relieved— that they had achieved a basis on which they would be able to move forward.
By the afternoon, the sense of excitement from the morning session gave way to a more relaxed atmosphere. Some Arab officials mixed openly and cordially with Israeli delegates, even though their countries do not currently have diplomatic relations. This positive atmosphere fueled the desire of nearly every delegation to support the efforts announced by the President to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. As the conference concluded at the end of a long day, I ran into my friend who in the morning had been so anxious. "It worked, Congratulations!" he exclaimed, this time visibly beaming, pleased that the Annapolis conference that brought together Israelis, Palestinians, and the majority of the Arab League, had produced meaningful results. We parted ways, knowing that our work is only now really beginning.