Hamas’s Ghost in Annapolis

America’s return to the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic front is a welcome development. One surely that EU diplomacy has sought to bring about. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts to push the peace process forward during her last years in office seem genuine. If they succeed, Rice and the Bush administration will be remembered not just for the endless tragedy of Iraq, but for making a serious contribution to Middle East peace.

But can the Middle East conference set to take place in Annapolis, Maryland succeed? It could if it ushered in a Palestinian national unity government and an agreement to an extended truce backed by a strong international military presence. Unfortunately, that is highly unlikely. A failure to take Palestinian domestic factors sufficiently into account is the root cause for pessimism.

The need to involve all Palestinian forces in any future peace negotiations is one of the key points of consensus that emerged from a recent Euro-American conference organized by the European Union Institute for Security Studies. Hamas must be a part of any lasting solution to the Palestinian issue, not just because it won democratic elections, but also because it controls the Gaza Strip and has real influence in the West Bank. Moreover, while Hamas’s long truce with Israel shows that it may be willing to abandon violence given the right amount of persuasion, it can make itself a terrible nuisance if it continues to be excluded.

There is still the remote possibility, however unlikely, that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will come to Annapolis with a concrete plan (a divided Jerusalem, a return to the 1967 borders with minor alterations, compensation for refugees), and a calendar to dismantle West Bank settlements. In this case, Abbas would leave Annapolis in a stronger position and thus be better able to negotiate with Hamas to establish a national unity government.