One cannot help but feel dubious about the chances of success at next month's "meeting" in nearby Annapolis, home of the American Naval Academy, to lay the groundwork for a final Palestinian-Israeli settlement. The reasons are many and, in major part, the key players are three lame-ducks.

But, should these leaders chose, they can capitalise on this weakness and perceivably come up with reasonable "principles" for the much-awaited settlement that can be supported by all, if the participants in the conference endorse the document.

But before they can expect an endorsement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George W. Bush would have to be aware that any half-baked proposals could spell out failure, precipitating the political demise of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and denying the American president a second chance for a memorable legacy, now that his gamble in Iraq has been catastrophic.

By any measure, Abbas, who controls only "half" of the designated Palestinian territories, following Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip, is the weakest link in this triumvirate but, surprisingly, remains the most hopeful.

And, much to the disappointment of many, his hand-picked negotiating team that will negotiate the "declaration of principles"are members of the "old guard", some of whom were responsible for the discredited 1993 Oslo Accord, which gave the Palestinians a raw deal.

Abbas also plans to submit any agreement to a referendum in both the West Bank and Gaza, his way of pulling the rug from underneath Hamas's feet - a very tall order. (Actually, Hamas is also planning a counter-conference in Damascus, another empty gesture).

While the Palestinians are eager to pursue their objective without delay, most Israeli leaders do not promise peace before many years.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to move at a snail's pace, primarily because he, too, is a weak leader facing inquiries about his unsuccessful war on Lebanon last year and various corruption charges.

Although his remarks at the new Knesset session last Monday may have sounded forward looking, the prime minister is not eager to begin immediate talks on the final status issues - Occupied Jerusalem, refugees and water.

Even the backhanded gesture of Vice Premier Haim Ramon that the future status of Occupied Jerusalem will be on the table, he made it clear earlier that he was only talking about the Holy City's Arab-inhabited suburbs and not the Old City which is home to some 240,000 Palestinians.

Naturally, there was no mention by either Israel of another break-or-make issue: the Palestinian refugees "right of return", which has been endorsed by the United Nations. (Here, Ramon talks about refugees returning to the West Bank and not Israel, where they had lived before being expelled).

Afif Safieh, head of the PLO Mission in Washington, reported that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who leaves for the Middle East next week, has repeatedly assured the Palestinian leadership and other Arab delegates at the opening of the UN General Assembly session last month that "failure is not an option" at Annapolis.


Bush, who seemed "fully briefed" on the issues, also emphasised to Abbas, Safieh reported in an interview, that Rice has his full backing.

He pointed out that Bush "twice repeated that he is growing increasingly impatient" with the lack of progress, which Safieh felt that the President's "impatience stemmed from the reluctance, hesitation and slowness of the (Israeli) side".

He continued, "How will President Bush ventilate his annoyance about the absence of significant advance, that's the big question for the coming weeks."

Aaron Miller, a former State Department adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations, seemed to have the answer, when he called for a "strong American hand" in the upcoming negotiations.

"Without a more active American role," he told The Forward, an American Jewish paper, "in the period leading up to the November conference there will be little chance of achieving any kind of consequential success".

Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies and co-director of its Washington Office, went a step further. The US takes decisive action in the Middle East, she wrote, "primarily when it believes its strategic interests are at stake".

In a well-documented policy paper, she cited several occasions when US actions were effective.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she went on, "it is implementation ... that has been lacking" as has been the case in a pullout from the occupied territories or the settlements in the West Bank.

Her punch line: "Until and unless a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is seen by the US to be as strategic an interest as keeping military secrets safe, peace will remain in an elusive goal."

It is time for some arm-twisting.

George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at