What Lies Ahead After Annapolis Talks?

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Robert Siegel talks with Martin Indyk and Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine and the New American Foundation about what was accomplished during this week's Middle East Peace talks in Annapolis, and what likely lies ahead.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, two views of this week's Mideast talks from Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, is with the Brookings Institution now, and Ghaith al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine and the New America Foundation. He was a legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority in previous negotiations. Welcome to both of you once again.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Director, Saban Center for Near East Policy, Brookings Institution): Thank you.

Mr. GHAITH AL-OMARI (Advocacy Director, American Task Force on Palestine; Senior Research Fellow, New America Foundation): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And the first question, Ghaith al-Omari, is anything different this week from last week? Is there anything that happened here either at Annapolis or in Washington, D.C.?

Mr. AL-OMARI: Almost certainly. Now, we're in a formal peace negotiation. This has not been the case for the last seven years, a negotiation that is supported by this massive community and more importantly about the Arab states. We have a process with a timeline. So I think we're entering a new political diplomatic reality.

SIEGEL: Martin Indyk, are you equally positive about the fact of talks?

Mr. INDYK: Yes, I am, especially because as to what he says, it's been seven miserable years in which Israelis and Palestinians have tried everything else but negotiating final status issues. But I think the fact that we have Arab state buy into this in the way that they did yesterday turning up and what particularly Saudi foreigners had to say was also positive.

But we need to bear in mind that in some ways this is an attempt in peace process for which I mean that Palestinian capability to implement anything that's agreed on is solely lacking at the moment and so that other process of building Palestinian institutions and capabilities is going to have to go hand in hand with this effort and it's not going to be so simple to do that in the one-year timeline that has been established here.

SIEGEL: Ghaith al-Omari, what about that? You could sit down with any number of Israeli interlocutors and write up a peace agreement. The question is could either you or could the Israeli, for that matter, get to decide to actually implement such an agreement?

Mr. AL-OMARI: Two points. The first thing is, again, for a first time, we have a Palestinian prime minister who is actually focused on building institutions and implementing security and who is capable and dedicated to this. So for this, I'm hopeful. But the other new thing…

SIEGEL: We have another Palestinian prime minister, also, who is down in Gaza, don't we?

Mr. AL-OMARI: Yes. And I can get to this in a minute. But let me just go to that other point that I'm optimistic about. The new thing that happened in Annapolis is that there's recognition that building capacity on the ground goes parallel to political negotiation. So what we will have is progress in negotiations, supporting the progress on the ground, and progress on the ground feeding back to negotiations. So we have a process of mutually supported two processes. We no longer have the condition that we had in the past.

As far as Hamas is concerned, what happened in Annapolis dealt a huge blow to Hamas. Hamas was isolated, even Syria was there. Hamas suddenly - the only supporter for Hamas in the region became Iran. And for this, they are paying a very heavy political price. The question now is in two, three, four months, if there is no progress, Hamas will gain. If there is progress, I think Hamas will continue to lose.

SIEGEL: Martin Indyk, do you agree with that, and if so, what constitutes progress?

Mr. INDYK: Well, yes, that's going to be the real test. Is progress, first of all, on the ground? West Bank Palestinians are going to have to feel that something has changed as a result of Annapolis and the processes launched there.

SIEGEL: Freedom of movement, for example, something that palpable?

Mr. INDYK: Yes, freedom of movement is important, a boost to the economy, job creation, efforts that Prime Minister Tony Blair is supposed to be focused on. The question of settlement activity, which is supposed to be frozen now. And also, importantly, the establishment of law and order on the Palestinian side. But again, there is a problem of the lack of Palestinian capability in this area that's going to be problematic. But none of this progress, either in the negotiations or on the ground, is going to be possible without the active engagement of the United States. And one could get the impression that that is what's going to happen here.

SIEGEL: What does that mean when we say the active involvement of the United States? President Bush has met with the two leaders. Secretary of State Rice is engaged as the new U.S. emissary to the region. Ghaith Omari, what can the United States do at this point that hasn't done before?

Mr. AL-OMARI: It needs to have three levels of engagement. The president has to be deployed strategically at central moments. The secretary has to continue her active engagement and I must give her credit for where we are right now. But the third thing which has been lacking is what Martin and his colleagues were doing at the previous administration - ongoing diplomatic engagement that will steal the process and it will create the right kind of framework for progress.

SIEGEL: This is a president, Martin Indyk, who seemed to come into office having seen Bill Clinton, your old boss, get deeply personally involved in Middle East peace negotiations that failed and President Bush decided, I'm not going there. I'm not going to bleed political capital over Middle East peace process with the odds stacked against it.

Now, we have a president in his last year, once again, can he really make a difference?

Mr. INDYK: Well, the irony is palpable given that this president doesn't have a lot of political capital suspend. That he was so critical of President Clinton for trying in his last year of office to achieve a final status deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And this is precisely where President Bush is today. But I thought yesterday at Annapolis, his was an arm's length embrace of the process. And this comes back to Ghaith's point about engaging in the diplomacy. I think the secretary of state deserves full credit for getting the parties to focus on final status negotiations. I have no doubt that she will be fully involved. But I think that she pulled back from direct engagement in trying to get a substantive document prepared for Annapolis. And there's the big question mark about whether she has the backing of the president for that kind of engagement.

SIEGEL: Well, Martin Indyk and Ghaith al-Omari, thank you both for talking with us today.

Mr. INDYK: Thank you.

Mr. AL-OMARI: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Martin Indyk is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. He's now director of the Saban Center for Near East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Ghaith al-Omari is a former Palestinian negotiator. He's now a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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