The multilateral talks scheduled to start in Annapolis tomorrow aren't getting a lot of optimistic press. The hostess, Condi Rice, has ratcheted down expectations quite a bit, and neither side is holding out much hope for a serious breakthrough. Setting aside the fact that most breakthroughs tend to occur when they're not expected, it's worth wondering why everyone is so downbeat ahead of this summit.
It's been many years since there were high-level, substantive talks of bringing about a lasting peace between Israel and the Arab world. The hope is that the parties will feel especially encouraged to put on a good show with their best friends in the audience; and that now finally there's some readiness to make that breakthrough.
The basic problem with these talks is the asymmetry of the situation, which boils down to this: Palestinian concessions can only consist of promises, which can easily be broken; while Israeli concessions will consist of sacrifices that can be reversed only at great cost. Israel has every incentive and reason to be skeptical. The well-founded fear is that Israel will give territorial concessions (which means increasing security risk), there will be more mortar and Kassam attacks, and then everyone will call for more peace talks where Israel will be expected to make more painful sacrifices for the sake of "peace."
The big, unanswered question is this: what will the Palestinians accept in order to end their "struggle" for good and make peace not just with Israel, but with life in general? This is a group of people whose very identity has been tied up in a more or less accurate view of history, namely that they've been dispossessed and victimized by another group of people whose claim to their country is fundamentally unfounded, whose religion is inferior, and whose ethnicity they think is phony. Does anyone really think that a country consisting of the entire pre-1967 West Bank and major portions of Jerusalem will be enough to satisfy the discontent they feel?
I hate to say this, but I just don't think so. I hope I am wrong, but my best sense is that the Palestinians are looking for outcomes that justify their suffering, vindicate their humiliation, elevate their nationalist aspirations by giving them victory. A negotiated settlement can not accomplish these things.
Now of course if I'm right (and I hope I'm not), the Israeli government has everything to gain by making offers for a peaceful resolution in return for unequivocal and irrevocable acceptance from the Palestinians, knowing full well they won't accept it.