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On the brink of Annapolis: O ye of little faith


All bets are off on the Annapolis conference, except that it is clear that it will be neither a disastrous failure nor the inauguration of immediate peace in the Middle East. What it will be depends on what the US wants it to be and what it does to a large extent.

First the pundits insisted that the Annapolis conference would not take place, and then many of them were skeptical that the Arab countries would attend. As Adel Darwish noted, they were taken by surprise by the decision of Saudi Arabia and the Arab League to attend. Even more surprising was the decision of Syria to attend the conference.

The pundits were united in proclaiming that the United States sides with "the other side" and that the conference will be very bad for "their side." Caroline Glick, representing many hysterical right-wing Zionist extremists, insisted that the conference would be a disaster for Israel. Hamas, representing the hysterics of the opposite extreme, was appalled by Arab League attendance at the summit:

Hamas slammed the announcement as a 'betrayal of the Palestinian people.'

In its condemnation, Hamas said the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would undoubtedly favor Israeli interests and ignore Palestinian demands.

At the same time, everyone warned that nothing would come of the conference. Logically, only one of these three views might possibly be right of course, but logic has never been a criterion for Middle East analyses.

The United States has already scored several victories even before the conference starts. The attendance of the Arab states shows that they still view the United States as the center of Middle East policy decisions and the arbiter of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The attendance of Syria moves Syria out of the Iranian orbit. Most interestingly, Syria announced that it is attending on account of the Palestinian issue, and would not raise the issue of the Golan. Moreover, the fact of the conference has now crowned Mahmoud Abbas as the Rais of the Palestinians, recognized by the entire Arab world, and eclipsed the Hamas.

Everything has its price of course. If Syria is attending the conference, it is not out of their great concern to support Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah. If it is not for the Golan, then why is Syria attending? Perhaps they are afraid of becoming isolated from the rest of the Arab world. More likely, the US has agreed to talk to Syria about Lebanon, as pundits like Michael Young have asked. However, such "engagement" will not necessarily be good for Lebanon. If you talk to the lion about the lamb problem, it is likely to be related to dinner, as the lion is not interested in discussing any other aspect of the lamb problem. The United states, following the lead of France, may have decided that the government of Fouad Seniora and its supporters are no longer viable clients. The only way to prevent Syrian hegemony in Lebanon would be by armed invasion, since the Lebanese army will not stand up to the Hezbollah and could not stand up to the Syrians. That may be unfortunate for the Lebanese, but it would certainly be in line with the "realistic" approach to the Middle East that has become the battle cry of American Middle East pundits.

What can make the conference a modest success, is if, as Shlomo Avineri noted, it institutionalizes the change in Israeli-Palestinian relationships that came about since the Hamas takeover in Gaza, and begins a process of step by step peace building. That would make the conference a little more than spin. Palestinians can already point to armored cars supplied by Israel and the announced settlement freeze as gains, as well as the return of Palestinian police to Nablus. If there is real security cooperation and this process continues, it will bring prosperity and normalcy to the Palestinians of the West Bank and should win their support. Of course, "should" is not the same as "will." Likewise, if Israelis can be confident that there are not going to be further terror raids from the West Bank, it will increase support for peace in Israel. This may be enough to allow progress in final status talks.

Annapolis can be a colossal failure if the Americans don't know what they want or if an attempt is made to insist on a detailed blueprint for peace, as Akiva Eldar insists must happen, and as Palestinians have been demanding, at least in public. If any of those who insist on a detailed blueprint and a date for conclusion of Israeli-Palestinian peace can provide a detailed blueprint of how the Hamas will be made to relinquish power in Gaza and on what date, then their demands for such blueprints and dates can be realistic. Peace with Hamas is apparently out of the question. Hamas remains adamant that it has no intention of giving up up "Palestine":

"The Land of Palestine ... is purely owned by the Palestinians," senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar said in a speech. "No person, group, government or generation has the right to give up one inch of it."

It is alarming to consider that the US administration may not really know what it wants at Annapolis. The Washington Post provides an ambigous assessment of the intentions of the Bush administration.

Rice said publicly this week that her goal is to wrap up a peace deal by the end of the Bush presidency. But people who have spoken to Bush in recent weeks say he has made it clear that he has no intention of trying to force a peace settlement on the parties. The president's fight against terrorism has given him a sense of kinship with Israel over its need for security, and he remains skeptical that, in the end, the Palestinians will make the compromises necessary for a peace deal.

Are there really two views or one?

In greeting Mahoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert, President Bush unexpectedly and unwisely announced that the conference will

provide an opportunity for the Israelis, the Palestinians, and their neighbors to recommit to implementing the Roadmap, with the U.S. monitoring their progress by the parties' agreement.

Recommitting to the roadmap is a good mantra. It is safe. The commitment is only as good as the good will of the parties. It is unrealistic to assume that the US can monitor do much to monitor the agreement. If the checkpoints and illegal outposts remain and the US says "Israel has complied" will the Palestinians pay any attention? If the Qassam rockets keep falling from Gaza, as they must until Hamas is put out of power, and the US says "Abbas has complied" will Israel really listen? Not likely. And what will the US do then?

There are also still hard basic issues to be resolved. Pressuring the sides on these issues will not help much, just as pressure to comply with the roadmap will not help. If Abbas goes beyond the bounds of the Palestinian consensual framework he will be replaced by radicals who are more intractable, and likewise if Ehud Olmert oversteps the limits of the Israeli consensus, he is likely to be replaced by a right-wing coalition. His government is not very stable.

To all appearances, Palestinians are not budging either on the right of return for refugees or on the issue of Jerusalem. They want all of the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel cannot grant right of return for refugees and it is unimaginable that the Israeli public or the Knesset would approve an agreement that strips Israel of any rights in the old city of Jerusalem and of the Hebrew University campus on Mt. Scopus. The question of recognition of Israel as a "State of the Jewish People" or the principle of "two states for two peoples" is also going to come up, and it can be a showstopper. Those who think it is just verbiage are mistaken. Perhaps it could be swept under the rug as long as it was not raised, but once it is raised, Israel will probably never be able to get referendum approval for an agreement that doesn't include such recognition.

Even more ominous was the report of the Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), according to which King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia promised in a telephone conversation with President Ahmadinejad of Iran:

that they will never recognize Israel.

It is hardly likely that Abdullah would have been stupid enough to make any such statement, which would be announcing that the Arab peace initiative is a sham. On the other hand, if he denies it, he is shown up as "soft on Zionism."

The Americans need to understand that they have before them two sets of parties: one wants concessions but cannot or will not make peace, the other wants peace, but doesn't want to make concessions. Making peace happen in that context is not a matter of a year or two years, even if there is no Hamas. However, the purpose of the conference was not to make peace most likely, but to establish a modus vivendi between Israel and the Palestinians that would remove the issue from immediate concern and give the US more backing regarding Iraq and Iran. If there are some honest gains from the conference for the Palestinians, it can do at least that much.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 1 Comment

You never mention the name Glick without associating her with "hysterical right-wing Zionist extremists". You also describe her as one.

This is not an exchange of ideas. It is a smear campaign.

Posted by Ted Belman @ 11/27/2007 05:34 PM CST

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