As the Annapolis meeting approaches, Palestinians grow less enthusiastic over its prospects. One can think of a number of good reasons for this pessimism, primary among them the bitter experience Palestinians have had with such summits in the past, especially when sponsored by the US. The last such meeting, lest we forget, was the Camp David summit in 2000.
Another good reason is the complete disconnect between the political discussions over and preparations for this meeting and the increasingly difficult situation in which Palestinians live. The latest report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicates that there are greater and greater Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank, while Israeli organizations are documenting an increase in settlement activity. With such a reality, the public is bound to be skeptical, and the Palestinian opposition is seizing on this skepticism to organize a summit of its own in Damascus, where those who have reservations vis-a-vis the Annapolis meeting will have their voices heard.
On the official level, however, the Palestinian leadership seems both excited and optimistic. President Mahmoud Abbas has assembled a negotiating team full of the familiar faces of those that belonged to the inner political circle of the late president Yasser Arafat since the beginning of the Oslo process and, which in addition to Abbas himself, included Ahmed Qureia and Yasser Abed Rabbo. This core team, however, is also not reassuring to the public. On the contrary, among both ordinary Palestinians and a large part of the political and intellectual elite, the makeup of the negotiating team brings to mind unhappy images of the ghosts of failed negotiations past. In their analyses of past failures, many referred to the quality of the negotiators, as well as the lack of transparency, any sense of collective decision-making and the absence of specific terms of reference, especially to international law, as the prime culprits.
The internal division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and the continuing tension between Fateh and Hamas, meanwhile, is a double-edged sword for the Palestinian leadership. On the one hand, it is encouraging the Americans and Israelis to move faster toward a process, in the assumption that this will strengthen the position of Abbas. But at the same time the split undermines the Palestinian position vis-a-vis Israel to such an extent that it is tempting to see the current American and Israel enthusiasm for negotiations as an attempt to exploit the weakness of the Palestinian leadership in order to wring further concessions from the Palestinian side.
Meanwhile, preparations for the Annapolis meeting are facing two major challenges. One is Arab participation. Arab states--especially Saudi Arabia, which has never participated in any official meeting with Israel--have attempted to encourage Israel to agree to end the occupation by offering to lend their support to the meeting through their participation. That would constitute a victory for Israel in terms of normalization, especially in the case of Saudi Arabian attendance. But as the Israeli position on the Annapolis meeting is becoming clearer with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statement that the meeting will achieve no more than a joint statement of general principles, both the Saudis and the Syrians have become hesitant.
The other challenge is from Israel. The Israelis are increasingly reluctant to allow the Annapolis meeting to include any substantial discussions on final status issues and as it approaches, Olmert is facing growing criticism from across the Israeli political spectrum including from within his own Kadima party. As a result, he is attempting to escape into generalities. The less substantial the issues under discussion in the meeting are, the safer it is for Olmert. However, this will be very embarrassing for Abbas, who has been explicit in his optimism and relatively high expectations for the meeting.
While it is neither wise nor realistic for the Palestinian side to have any high expectations, the Annapolis meeting can be used it to expose the illegal Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian territories as the real obstacle to peace. Such a Palestinian strategy can be successful in persuading the international community to pressure Israel to behave in the occupied Palestinian territories in accordance with the premises upon which this meeting is convening, i.e., the pursuit of a two-state solution on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. It should be made clear to the 36 countries set to participate in the Annapolis meeting that there is a stark contradiction in Israel undertaking to negotiate a peace based on a two-state solution while at the same time undermining the very possibility of a Palestinian state from emerging by continuing to expand illegal settlements that are not only obstacles to peace but also increase the security burden on both Israelis and Palestinians.- Published 8/10/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Finally there is a fixed venue for the American-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian conference: Annapolis, Maryland. There is an approximate date: sometime in the second half of November. The Syrians have been invited, thereby ostensibly dealing with a major criticism of the conference concept. In Israel and Palestine, the two sides' negotiating teams are set to meet to begin drafting an agreed document to be endorsed at the conference, while President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Ehud Olmert get together every fortnight in an atmosphere of conviviality and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides visit the region to encourage preparations.
Why, then, do I remain skeptical--nay, fearful--regarding the outcome? After all, I have supported a negotiated two-state solution for the past 20 years.
Nothing about this conference looks right; everything points to a failure foretold. The closer we get to the conference, the worse the outcome looks. The only real issues that remain to be resolved are, first, whether the conference will be held at all and second, regardless of whether or not it eventually takes place, how bad the damage it generates will be.
There are so many negatives to this project that it's hard to know where to start. All the participants are too weak to qualify for a serious conflict-resolution effort. The Palestinian leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas lacks the authority to enforce its writ. It has lost the Gaza Strip and only manages to control the West Bank thanks to Israeli military backing. It is in no position to make constructive concessions on the major issues of territory, refugees and Jerusalem, let alone deliver on them in terms of public support. It is not significantly reforming its corrupt and inept institutions--the definitive step that must precede progress toward peace.
Abbas' partner, PM Ehud Olmert, has in the course of some 21 months in power demonstrated little if any strategic understanding of the region and its dynamics. While he perceives the negative role played by the settlements, he is incapable of dismantling them. If the Winograd commission doesn't call for his resignation, significant segments of his governing coalition and his own party could abandon him the moment he offers the necessary concessions on borders and Jerusalem; even his partner on the political left, Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor), who is very much a strategic thinker, is openly skeptical regarding the Annapolis effort.
To the weak and ineffective Israeli and Palestinian leaders add a third, US President George W. Bush, whose failure in Iraq is complemented by seven years of refusal to commit his administration wholeheartedly to an Israeli-Palestinian solution. That Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not shuttling back and forth in the region for weeks on end from now until meeting time in Annapolis says everything: weak president, wrong objective--recruiting moderate Sunni Arab backing in Iraq and regarding Iran rather than making peace between Israel and Palestine--and half-hearted effort.
Speaking of the Sunni Arab world, it is almost nowhere to be seen as this conference takes shape. It has not followed through forcefully on its impressive Arab peace initiative--not that Olmert, either, knows what to do with it. It is hedging its bets on Hamas. It is deeply disappointed with the Bush administration's catastrophic handling of Iraq--though it did nothing to prevent that fiasco. Worst of all it is in strategic disarray, lacking leadership and incapable of stopping the internal disintegration of, at last count, five of the 22 members of the Arab League (Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and of course Palestine).
Small wonder the date for the Annapolis meeting is repeatedly postponed. The Saudis won't commit to coming while the Syrians, understandably, refuse to play the role of spear-carrier and insist their own conflict with Israel be dealt with in Annapolis as well. Meanwhile the conference agenda cannot be set because Israel and the Palestinians have radically different concepts of the document to be drafted.
Some would argue that it is nevertheless better for Washington to try and fail with this conference than not to try at all, and that the "political horizon" represented by the effort is vital to Abbas' attempts to promulgate reform. Yet the real danger here is precisely that the unwinding of this conference--its cancellation, failure to agree or endorsement of a weak statement that in any case cannot be acted upon by Abbas, Olmert and Bush--will accelerate the negative dynamics in the region. It will hasten the downfall of the Palestinian and Israeli leaders, deter their successors from trying again, strengthen Hamas and its backers Syria and Iran, and further weaken Washington's (and potentially Jerusalem's) Arab allies in the looming confrontations with Tehran and the radical elements maneuvering to succeed the US in Iraq.
Better to postpone Annapolis and concentrate first on building Palestinian security and governmental institutions and rebuilding confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. That's what the Quartet appointed Tony Blair to do. Annapolis is dangerous because it is liable to preempt and prejudice that effort.- Published 8/10/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Chasing a mirage
by Ali Jarbawi
In all previous attempts at negotiations with Israel, Palestinians have never made any real breakthrough. Progress has only been made on procedural or superficial issues, even if expectations were always raised unreasonably high, which in turn created exaggerated hopes for the peace process. This has been the case since the Madrid peace conference and was true of the Oslo process. Throughout, the Palestinian position was in permanent retreat and concessions were offered Israel at no cost.
What is true of the past holds true for the present. When US President George W. Bush first announced his intention to convene an international meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian side was concerned about the lack of any clear agenda for the meeting, as well as the lack of substance and the absence of a list of invitees. The Palestinian side consequently insisted that the meeting should be preceded by agreement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides regarding how and when to tackle final status issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees.
Israel resisted this and insisted instead that nothing but a general declaration of principles could come from the meeting--now set to take place in Annapolis some time in late November--and that there could be no talk of specific content or any timetable. Slowly, but irresistibly, the Palestinian position changed. Today, Palestinian officials speak of agreement at the meeting on a general framework that will then be followed by negotiations on final status issues to be concluded no later than six months after the meeting. Indeed, beyond the talk of a six-month timetable, the Palestinian position has become the Israeli one, something that is glossed over with optimistic announcements about that point in the future after the Annapolis meeting.
It seems we have not learned our lessons.
What, after all, is the cause of this optimism? What has changed that has put the Palestinian side in a better position now than it was seven or 17 years ago? And if there is nothing that has changed for the better in our case, is it that Palestinian negotiators believe that the US or Israel are now, for their own internal reasons, ready to sign an agreement that respects Palestinian rights and demands?
Those who believe the time is ripe for Palestinians to conclude an agreement with Israel are deluded. On the ground, the Palestinian position is at its weakest. There is political as well as geographical division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Social and economic conditions are on the verge of collapse, the Israeli grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem is stronger and more draconian than ever while Arab and international support for Palestinians is dwindling. In view of that, how can Palestinians change the balance of power and squeeze anything successful from negotiations with Israel?
Some argue that the US administration has finally recognized the compelling necessity of resolving the Palestinian question. But this would be an enormous assumption. The current US administration is suffering severe domestic criticism over its war in Iraq and is stumbling through its remaining months in power. Furthermore, nothing indicates that the Bush administration's unwavering support of Israel has changed. The White House may have recognized that it needs to reinvigorate the Palestinian-Israeli political process. It is clear, however, that it is neither willing nor capable of imposing a settlement, something Arab countries and Palestinians have long looked for. In truth, the Arab peace initiative would have constituted a shorter and easier path to achieve a political settlement. But one of the American aims in holding the Annapolis meeting is exactly to consign this initiative to the dustbin.
Some, meanwhile, see in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert someone willing to make unprecedented progress toward a just settlement. But Olmert is not only pressing full steam ahead with the construction of his Apartheid wall in the West Bank, he is also struggling, not only with the opposition but with his own party and his partners in the ruling coalition, to retain his tenuous hold on power. To survive, he might do well to resuscitate a negotiations process to distract his detractors, but is he really going to reach an agreement that meets Palestinian demands? And would he be able to push such an agreement through? Of course not. He has neither the power, the vision nor the intellect.
This is anything but a good time to pursue a final agreement with Israel, and the Palestinian side should not peddle false hope. Since negotiators have agreed to attend the Annapolis meeting unconditionally they should face the Palestinian people honestly and say that any negotiations now are undertaken on Israeli premises, i.e., that there can be no return to the 1967 borders, there can be no Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and there can be no return of refugees. Should Palestinians accept these terms, agreement is at hand. If not, we will see the start of yet another cycle of negotiations, propelling negotiators around the globe and onto endless satellite TV discussion programs.
For 15 years Palestinians have been pursuing the mirage of a negotiations process. Let us not this time kid ourselves into thinking it is any cause for optimism.- Published 8/10/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
An extraordinary opportunity
by Galia Golan
Few are particularly excited by the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian conference; most may believe it will not or should not even take place. Yet this could be the most important and promising opportunity for a genuine peace process since the ill-fated Camp David II conference in July 2000. This optimism derives from both the unique constellation of circumstances in the region and the cumulative effect of developments within the Israeli and Palestinian publics.
For various reasons of their own, primarily concern over the radicalization of their publics and the growing strength of Iran, the Arab regimes are acutely interested in getting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its politically mobilizing effect, out of the way. The entire Arab world has signed on to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, originally proposed by Saudi Arabia and reconfirmed unanimously by the Arab League as recently as March 2007. In an unprecedented manner, this peace plan offers that which Israel has sought, or claims to have sought, from its inception: the end of the Arab-Israel conflict, normal relations and security.
The Arab peace initiative even refines the traditional refugee solution, avoiding direct mention of the "right of return" in favor of a new formulation: an "agreed upon" resolution of the problem. Designed to accommodate Israeli sensitivities, the initiative provides a commitment from the entire Arab world that would render resistance from recalcitrant Palestinian elements such as Hamas difficult if not impossible should actual Israeli agreement be reached to end the occupation.
This is basically what the Arab world is providing Israel today as an incentive to make the November conference the opening of serious and expeditious negotiations for a final status agreement with the Palestinians (and hopefully, over time, with the Syrians). The Arab peace incentive, along with Saudi attendance at the conference symbolically representing the Arab League, depend of course on just this: that the conference open a clear, delineated and time-limited negotiating process on all the final status issues, to culminate in the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories equivalent to the 1967 borders.
Can or will the Palestinians and Israelis realize the potential this opportunity provides? Clearly the Palestinian leadership is weak, and neither Fateh nor Israel has done much of significance to bolster the position of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) vis-a-vis Hamas. Yet the Palestinian public, for all its disillusionment with Oslo, Fateh and "peace processes", continues to support a negotiated, two-state solution. If indeed negotiations bring an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state, it is hard to believe that a significant part of the Palestinian public would remain with Hamas.
Repeated polling has demonstrated that events and developments of the past years have made the Palestinians justifiably skeptical but still pragmatic, willing to accept a mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza, with equivalent land swaps if necessary and possibly some kind of compromise on the refugee issue. Similarly, an accumulation of events and developments has also rendered Israelis no less skeptical or disillusioned but also no less pragmatic. What were once exceptional concepts for Israelis, such as "the Palestinian people", a Palestinian state and "occupied territories" are today openly acknowledged and even accepted by the majority of the public, including the center--many members of which have in fact gravitated from the right. To this one may add the idea of land swaps and even possibly acknowledgement of the de facto division of Jerusalem, along with juridical, psychological and political recognition of the green line 1967 border as an over-all guideline, with international involvement in its protection.
With the exception of a minority (albeit a highly vocal and wealthy one), Israelis are "finished" with the conflict, with the territories and with the settlements. Few see any of these as contributing to their security or prosperity.
Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is not one of those few. It was Olmert who raised the idea of Israeli withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank and it is Olmert who desperately needs an "agenda" to salvage both his political career and his party, Kadima. Indeed it is these two factors--Olmert's political career and Kadima--that hold the key to the conference and thus to peace. The success of the conference, perhaps its very convening, depends upon Olmert's willingness, courage and political calculation to move from his proclaimed insistence on a conference that does no more than produce a vague, general declaration of "interests" to the more specific "framework agreement" with a timetable that is advocated by Abu Mazen (and perhaps by Condoleezza Rice, though not necessarily by President George W. Bush).
Olmert's decision will ultimately depend upon the political alignments within Kadima, about which we can only second-guess. One might cynically say that given his generally bleak political future at present, Olmert has little to lose and very much to gain if he were to take the risk of a government reduced in size but determined to reach a peace agreement. If Olmert and his colleagues in Kadima understand the extraordinary opportunity awaiting Israel, the upcoming conference could, indeed should, mark the beginning of the end of the conflict.- Published 8/10/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Galia Golan is professor of government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya and emerita, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a leading activist of Peace Now.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.