Until now I had been convinced that the Annapolis conference was going nowhere; that it is ill-conceived, brings together weak and incapable leaders, and diverts attention away from the more urgent task of building viable Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. Now, along come Iran, Syria, Hamas and the Palestinian far-left splinter organizations and declare the need to meet in a parallel conference in Damascus in order to thwart the Annapolis effort. Why their desperation? Do they know something about Annapolis that I don't?
Just as the Palestinian refusalists and their Iranian and Syrian state backers appear to be taking Annapolis seriously, so PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas appears to take them seriously--to the extent of seeking to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to cancel the Damascus conference or at least commit it to not calling into question Abbas' position as elected leader of the Palestinians.
Nor are the Abbas-Assad contacts the only ones between the two sides. Despite American and Israeli disapproval, Abbas recently prayed together with allegedly moderate Hamas leaders in the West Bank. Egypt is quietly preparing for renewed Fateh-Hamas talks on reconstituting a unity government after Annapolis. And even before Abbas' request to Assad, the refusalist factions scheduled to meet in Damascus in parallel with the Annapolis conference were not threatening to replace the PLO or even oppose Abbas' leadership of that organization. At a certain level, one could be forgiven for suggesting that the entire Fateh-opposition confrontation is loosely choreographed.
One thing appears certain: Abbas will need Hamas after the Annapolis and Damascus meetings because Abbas is damned if he succeeds in Annapolis and damned if he fails.
Suppose he appears to succeed, wresting from Olmert concessions regarding borders, Jerusalem and a timetable for negotiating them. Not only will the concessions not satisfy Hamas. Not only will Abbas prove too weak to deliver on his own security commitments under the roadmap (and Olmert too weak to dismantle outposts as mandated by the roadmap). Not only will Hamas in Gaza prevent progress there and possibly in the West Bank as well. But domestic politics, both Palestinian and Israeli, will get in the way.
If the triumphant Abbas opts for new elections in order to fortify his position, there is no guarantee he will win them. He has done nothing to reform his party, Fateh, and Hamas still appears to Palestinians to be the less corrupt and more efficient party. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, too, will almost certainly be forced into early elections--by defections from his coalition in protest over his concessions, by the Winograd commission report or by any number of criminal investigations pending against him. And elections, in Palestine and/or Israel, precipitated by the political weakness of both Abbas and Olmert, could obfuscate and delay any achievements they bring home from Annapolis.
If, on the other hand, Abbas fails at Annapolis, then he will certainly confront heightened pressures from Hamas and from within his own Fateh party. Either way, whether he approaches Hamas from a position of relative strength or weakness as a consequence of Annapolis, he is likely to see in negotiations aimed at renewing some form of Fateh-Hamas cooperation such as a unity government his next logical step at the internal Palestinian level. He will calculate that such a step could enable him to survive politically and, in the best case, proceed with the peace process launched at Annapolis.
In the last two years, Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, then took over Gaza by force. Its next objective is the West Bank. Given the likelihood that the IDF would intervene militarily in any Hamas attempt to take over the muqataa in Ramallah by force, the best strategy for it to follow is to renew communications and collaboration with Fateh and Abbas. It knows Abbas will need precisely this after Annapolis.
The Damascus meeting, then, is a reminder for Abbas just who the refusalists are, how strong their Iranian and Syrian backing is, and what the price will be, post-Annapolis, for Abbas' survival.
Finally, a note of caution regarding Syria. It is possible to interpret Syrian President Bashar Assad's posturing over the Damascus conference, and even his unusual hosting of a Hizballah demonstration, as tactical maneuvers aimed at ensuring him a more meaningful invitation to Annapolis than anything he has seen so far. Yet even if Syria, in its own desperation, ultimately agrees to join the Annapolis meeting and cancel the Damascus meeting in return for symbolic mention at Annapolis of the Golan issue, the problematic Hamas-Fateh equation represented by the Damascus meeting and discussed here will not change. - Published 5/11/2007 © bitterlemons.org
The Syrian connection to the current American initiative on the Middle East to convene a political meeting at Annapolis in the autumn is a good illustration of its deteriorating value.
At the very beginning of the initiative, Syria had three motives for engagement. First, Syria is a member of the Arab Summit Committee tasked with promoting the Arab peace initiative. At that early stage of the American initiative, the Arabs, including the Syrians but also the Saudis and others, were under the impression that the US initiative would base itself on the Arab initiative. Second, Syria has territory under Israeli occupation and thus Syrian participation in any political meeting aimed at solving the Arab-Israel conflict is required. Finally, Syria has its own agenda vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, evidenced by its relations with Hamas, and therefore another motive to engage with the American process.
But in the last four months, between the launch of this initiative and now, the Annapolis meeting has lost most of its political attraction to Arab countries, including the Syrians. Today, Arab attitudes toward Annapolis range between the cautious and the critical. While the Saudis are losing interest and are hesitant to even attend, Syria has taken an active position in opposition to the meeting and has agreed to host a simultaneous opposition conference in Damascus at the same time. This will of course be led by Hamas and include all the political and religious Palestinian factions that oppose Annapolis.
The Arab disinterest has come about because in spite of the extensive diplomatic exertions of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the current initiative looks set to repeat most of the mistakes committed in previous American Middle East peace efforts. These past failures have contributed to alienating this process from any Arab or popular Palestinian support. Syria has lost interest because the meeting is not going to allude to the Arab initiative nor is it going to allow Syria to discuss the occupation of its own territory.
Even on the Palestinian level nothing is happening. Rice declared in today's meeting with Abbas that the American side will neither come up with a political proposal nor encourage the parties to get into the substantial issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, refugees, Jerusalem and borders, etc.
American acceptance of Yitzak Shamir's conditions at the Madrid conference in 1991 was largely responsible for the many problems that appeared later in that process. Rice seems to be repeating this pattern by being as sensitive to internal Israeli politics as she is insensitive to the internal Palestinian political situation. The Americans will not allow Annapolis to touch on substance because the Israelis are refusing any discussion that will specify 1967 borders or refer to the refugees' right of return in any way. On the contrary, Israel is pushing the Americans to accept its demand that any political statement has to address the Jewish nature of Israel.
To avoid the failure that almost certainly will result from the vast differences between the parties on these substantial issues, the fallback position of American diplomacy is to come up with a general political formulation that any party can interpret as it wishes. However, this will amount to precisely nothing.
And while such an outcome will save Israel internal problems, it will leave Abbas in a much worse situation than he is in now. Hamas, which is staying quiet during the buildup to the meeting, will simply turn around and say that, once again, diplomacy has failed. Yasser Arafat took his chances to end the occupation through negotiations and he failed. With no result from Annapolis, Abbas will have failed in the same way.
And Hamas can be expected to extract the maximum amount of political capital from such a situation, with its inevitable assertion that neither the previous process nor the current one has been able to stop the settlement expansion process and the consolidation of the occupation, let alone end the occupation, a basic requirement for any political agreement.- Published 5/11/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The new "nos" of Damascus
by Smadar Perry
Try to imagine the deep frustration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) on the morning the Annapolis peace conference convenes. Even before departing for the opening session, instead of reading headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post that generate a modicum of hope, along with press clippings from the Palestinian and Israeli media, he would have seen the reports from Damascus, where the "alternative conference" was meeting.
His advisers would have underlined in red the "nos" emanating from the Palestinian refusalist camp. It's not hard to guess what they would say: a big "no" to "bending" to PM Ehud Olmert and "bowing" to President George W. Bush; a reminder that Abbas has "repeatedly ignored the dilemma of the Palestinian people as it struggles under the yoke of occupation".
The same old slogans and cliches--yet the timing and circumstances will work in the refusalist camp's favor. There, in Damascus, the job is much easier than in Annapolis. The heads of the Palestinian refusalist organizations will hasten to accuse Abu Mazen of betraying the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and not insisting on the division between Yerushalayim and al-Quds. They will explain that the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state have diminished insofar as Israel has again evaded its responsibility to dismantle settlements. Unless the border separating Israel and the West Bank is established as the 1967 line, they will warn in Damascus, the dream of an independent state will evaporate and disappear and history will judge Abu Mazen harshly.
Whatever concluding announcement emerges from the Annapolis conference this fall will be interpreted in the negative by the Damascus "alternatives". The heads of the refusalist organizations will summon the press to hear their sad conclusion: Israel has once again triumphed at the expense of the Palestinians, while Abu Mazen persists in his weakness. Even if someone from the media attempts to present a Palestinian "gain", such as freezing of settlement construction or the release of aid funds, they will be told in Damascus, "there is no chance these agreements will pass the test of reality."
Thus it was a smart move in Damascus to postpone the convening of the alternative conference from November 7, when the refusalists had planned to tie the hands of the Palestinian Annapolis delegation in advance, to a date that corresponds with the actual Annapolis meeting. (According to unconfirmed reports, certain Fateh sources actually claimed that Syria was now inclined to refuse to host the alternative meeting at all.) If at Annapolis an effort is made to claim achievements that go beyond a photo opportunity, Damascus will launch its own new constraints. Khaled Meshaal, Nayef Hawatmeh, Ahmed Jibril and Farouq Kadumi, the guest of honor from Fateh, will have an easy time functioning as a real time response team. And when the Annapolis conference concludes and Olmert and Abu Mazen shake hands in front of the cameras at the White House and perhaps even sign an agreement under the sponsorship of President Bush, the Palestinian refusalist camp will remind them of the fate of the Oslo accords, and the man who helped make both events happen--Abu Mazen--will flash a particularly sour smile.
In contrast with the obvious lack of enthusiasm displayed by the Arab Annapolis invitees, the alternative meeting participants seem to be overflowing with creativity. On the one hand Egypt is hesitating about Annapolis, Saudi Arabia "has not yet decided" and Jordan warns of a dangerous failure. Only President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan enthusiastically awaits his invitation so he can settle accounts with his homegrown Islamist extremists. In contrast, the response team meeting in Damascus will function like clockwork: for every decision made at Annapolis it will pronounce a "no", issue a "we told you so" warning and recruit spokesmen to state categorically that "without Hamas there is no chance".
And, of course, the fingerprints of the Syrian presidential palace will be all over this meeting of the leadership of the Palestinian refusalist camp. True, President Bashar Assad invited himself to the Annapolis conference and has missed no opportunity to declare his allegiance to peace. But Washington ignored him while Israel declared its refusal to bypass Washington or to manage two peace tracks at once. Finally, the Israel Air Force attack of September 6 seemed to silence the Syrian presidential palace completely.
Yet even after the attack, Assad persisted in his own strange style, to work the peace option. It was only after Olmert and Bush clarified that there was no chance of putting the Golan issue on the Annapolis agenda that Assad backed off and accepted his advisers' suggestion to set a new date for the Palestinian opposition conference. As far as Bashar Assad is concerned, without Syria there can be no real peace, and without a commitment to reopen the Syrian negotiating track he has no problem in hosting and encouraging the anti-Annapolis meeting in Damascus.- Published 5/11/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Smadar Perry is Middle East editor of the daily Yediot Aharonot.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A message to the world
an interview with Ahmed Yusuf
bitterlemons: Why hold a summit of opposition parties at the same time as the Annapolis meeting? Is this not merely a public relations stunt?
Yusuf: It is more effective to send a message at the same time as Annapolis. Most of the Palestinian people and institutions are opposed to the Annapolis meeting because we believe it is simply designed to put pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to make more concessions.
bitterlemons: What message do you hope this opposition summit will send?
Yusuf: The message we hope to send is that Palestinians are not only represented by Ramallah. Half of all Palestinians live abroad and they reject the Annapolis meeting, because they want Abu Mazen to stop making concessions, especially on the right of return. This is in addition to the many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that also reject the Annapolis meeting.
We hope to drive home the message that the Palestinian people refuse to normalize with the Israeli occupation. The opposition conference is there to focus international opinion on the rights that are being denied us daily by the Israeli occupation and to underline that no one has the legitimacy to sign away any of these rights.
bitterlemons: Who is the summit directed at? The Palestinian people, the presidency or the international community?
Yusuf: The opposition summit addresses the international community as well as the Palestinian negotiating delegation. We hope to show the international community that this delegation does not negotiate in the name of the Palestinian people and that Abu Mazen does not represent every Palestinian.
We are also addressing the American administration. Enough conferences and enough false promises. We have heard the lie that the US is committed to establishing an independent Palestinian state since Oslo. We heard it at Taba and at Sharm al-Sheikh. We've seen it in the roadmap and we hear it now. Palestinians do not trust Washington any longer, because we believe the US is biased and blindly supports Israel.
bitterlemons: What does Hamas itself hope to achieve at such a summit?
Yusuf: Hamas wants an end to the occupation and a strict time limit for when this will happen. Also, we want to show that Hamas is a key player in the region and that the movement represents a significant proportion of Palestinians. Nothing can be achieved without the approval of Hamas.
bitterlemons: Would it not be more productive for opposition parties to come out with a joint statement before the Annapolis meeting outlining exactly what they expect from Abbas and any negotiations with Israel in order to set down a clear target to which any negotiations can be compared?
Yusuf: Any such statement will not have much of an impact. We want to show that there is real political weight behind us and that we represent the biggest proportion of the Palestinian people. We also hope to gain Arab support for this conference. A simple statement will not achieve any of this.
bitterlemons: Do you expect anything positive to come out of either Annapolis or the opposition summit?
Yusuf: We want only to record a very clear position: Abu Mazen is not the Palestinian people and he is not the only one who can deal with the supreme national issues. He is only one of the addresses and there are others that the international community must deal with.- Published 5/11/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ahmed Yusuf is an advisor to PM Ismail Haniyeh.
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