There are two schools of thought regarding President George W. Bush’s Middle East peace extravaganza held last month on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, which brought together for the first time 16 Arab countries and Israel in a non-violent environment.
One group believes it was a waste of time, pure theatrics by an administration desperate to leave something more substantial for the history books than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Critics of Bush’s foreign policy were quick to denounce the Annapolis antics as just a mega-photo opportunity and a publicity seeking stunt meant to take focus off the economy, a US dollar at its weakest point in decades, a hurting real estate market going south as a result of the sub-prime scandal and gas prices going through the roof.
Then there are the optimists, the president’s supporters and those who believed a miracle could be accomplish in Maryland when previous attempts have failed in the Holy Land, where miracles traditionally are given greater odds.
Bush’s intent was to jump-start the comatose peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis with the expectation of reaching an agreement for a two-state solution before the end of his mandate, now just a year away. For the president, it was somewhat of a shot in the dark. Palestinian and Israeli leaders walked away from the peace conference promising the US president they would “push for peace.” In political parlance that is the equivalent of saying “the check is in the mail.”
But something unexpected did come out of Annapolis. The first thing is the highly significant return of Russia to the Middle East peace negotiations. According to sources close to President Vladimir Putin, Russia was instrumental in convincing the Syrians to participate in the Annapolis meeting. Putin personally telephoned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad urging him to participate in the Annapolis conference. This was confirmed by a high-ranking European diplomat in Washington.
Syria, long shunned by the Bush administration for its policies in Iraq and Lebanon and considered by Washington to be counter-productive to peace efforts, remains a key player to any future negotiated settlement of the larger Middle East crisis.
Russia’s renewed interest in bringing about a peaceful settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute injects a new momentum in a process that has been dragging for decades. Putin has already convened a follow-up summit in Moscow scheduled for January.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are suddenly eager to shift the peace talks into high gear. After decades of refusing so much as to even mention the name of Israel, there seems to be a new impetus, spearheaded by the Saudis, to get the ball rolling.
Why this sudden sense of urgency after years of procrastination? Because the Saudis, much like the Russians, have seen what sort of damage home-grown terrorists can cause to the economy.
Another result of Annapolis is a meeting of the minds of two leaders on opposing ends of the political spectrum: Russia’s Putin and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Just like Russian pressure on Damascus convinced Assad to send his deputy foreign minister to Annapolis, similarly, the Saudi king’s political clout brought a total of 16 Arab countries — including Syria — face-to-face with Israeli leaders at the conference.
What motivated those two politically opposed leaders to act in unison with the European Union, the United States and Israel? The fact that they all share a common enemy — Islamist terrorism.
Moscow and Riyadh, much like Washington, London, Paris, Madrid, Istanbul and other cities that have experienced firsthand attacks by Islamist terrorists, also agree on a fundamental focus point of the Middle East conflict. They say that until the Palestinians have their own state, the continued unrest in the Middle East will provide extremist Islamists a perfect recruiting poster for their cause.
The Russians, much like the Saudis, and indeed the United States, have seen the results of homegrown terrorism and it was not pretty. Ironically, the Islamists, contrary to what they were hoping for, ended up acting as a unifying force by bringing together the United States and Russia, two former Cold War warriors. At the same time, they succeeded in pushing the vast majority of the Arab World into the same camp with the Western-Russian alliance — and Israel — who now agree they have a new common enemy — the extremists within Islam.