The aid pledged in Paris may nonetheless do some good. It may stabilise living standards on the West Bank. And by exacerbating the contrast between a more prosperous West Bank, controlled by the secular Fatah, and an increasingly poverty-stricken Gaza Strip, controlled by the religious extremists, Hamas, it may strengthen Fatah against Hamas.
Assuming all this works out perfectly, at the very best we might get a slightly improved status quo. The chances of a long-term peace agreement, I would say, are almost nil.
I have just returned from three weeks in Israel. I spent quite a bit of time on the West Bank. I would say the situation is on a hair trigger and we are as far from peace as ever.
The Annapolis peace process, instituted by the Americans, is essentially a kind of make-believe. Its genuine strategic purpose is to stabilise the West Bank and keep Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in power by giving him international status and some money.
However, the Americans seem to have got carried away with their rhetoric and are in danger of once more vastly inflating expectations beyond their power to deliver. This has many times in the past been extremely dangerous in the Middle East.
It seems that every two-term American president feels a desperate need in his last year to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Bill Clinton was at it in his last 24 hours in office. Ronald Reagan had a plan in his last year. By trying so hard to get an agreement to bolster the legacy of a presidency in its dying days, the Americans often scramble and improvise, take foolish risks and by their own political desperation convince all parties that maximum results are possible. The result is frequently disastrous.
There are two short-term factors that will tend to keep a lid on the conflict, and one that will tend to make it explode, but all the long-term trends are unhelpful.
The Israelis will want to keep things as quiet as possible until at least after George W. Bush makes his first visit to Israel as President in early January. Given the closeness of the US-Israel alliance, presidential visits are remarkably rare. The Israelis won't want it cancelled.
Second, Abbas's position is pathetically weak. Hamas won the elections in Gaza but it has also won many municipal elections on the West Bank. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority was infamously corrupt even by Middle East standards. Fatah is a busted flush of ageing cronies and local war lords. It has not produced a new generation of leaders and it has very little support among the Palestinian people. It is difficult to gauge Palestinian public opinion, but perhaps a third seriously support the religious agenda of Hamas. Among the remaining two thirds, the corruption of Fatah is a byword. No one believes Fatah could remain in power even in the West Bank without the heavy presence of the Israeli Defence Force, constantly arresting and suppressing the worst extremists, who in this context are also Fatah's enemies. Remove the Israelis and the estimates of how long Fatah would remain in power range from two weeks to two hours.
The short-term trend that could cause a blow-up any day is the Qassam rockets being fired daily from Gaza at Israeli civilians in Sderot and increasingly near the sizeable Israeli city of Ashkelon, with its vital and vulnerable power station. Every day half a dozen of these rockets are fired. On one day when I was there recently 20 were fired. These are not fired at military targets. Their intent is to murder civilians.
Luckily, these rockets are crude, short-range and inaccurate. But they are becoming longer-range as outsiders, especially Iran, provide weaponry. Eventually one of these rockets will hit a school bus or a classroom and kill 20 Israeli children. When that happens the Israeli political process will demand a huge operation in Gaza to clean out the rocket factories. No Israeli wants to go back to Gaza. But they will if necessary and such an operation would be bloody and terrible. Many people would die. Amid all the criticism Israel would face, one question would be unanswerable: which democratic country would not respond if its civilians were being daily fired upon by rockets? There is no moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli military action. The Israelis do not aim at civilians and would stop all military action tomorrow if the terrorism stopped.
This is where the long-term trends come in, all of which, as I say, are dolorous. The Annapolis negotiations are all about territory: where will the borders of a new Palestinian state lie, what is the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank?
These are entirely secondary questions. If the Israelis actually had a peace partner in the Palestinians I have no doubt they would be extremely generous about territory. But there is not the slightest indication that they have such a partner.
While I was in Israel a young Israeli father, in his 20s, was shot and killed in his car by two Palestinian terrorists. He was shot for no more substantial reason than that he happened to be driving along while the terrorists were waiting by the side of the road. And the identity of the terrorists? They were policemen in the PA. Allegedly, and this is very convenient, they did not use weapons provided by the international community as part of its plan to bolster the PA.
The question is whether the PA can ever get to a stage where it can govern Palestinian society, and whether the PA has any genuine interest in peace. Until very recently PA school text books contained traditional anti-Semitic propaganda against the Jews. Due to international pressure that has largely been removed. But still the text books, and the Palestinian media, are full of incitement to terrorism and no suggestion that Israel will be a peace partner, or even a state Palestinians will have to live with. Instead maps of Palestine are routinely printed which simply erase Israel altogether.
This means the peace talks, and the media commentary around it, are rigged against Israel because they don't discuss the one real obstacle to peace: the refusal of the Palestinian leadership, and much of the Middle East Islamic leadership, to genuinely accept Israel's right to exist.