Posted on December 03, 2007 in Washington Watch

The Annapolis Conference turned out to be much less than the “historic breakthrough” hyped by official briefers and dutifully (or naively) echoed in mainstream media.

In fact, Annapolis was only historic if one ignores the Madrid Conference of 1992. Or if one discounts the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian Accords signed in Oslo, Cairo, Paris, Washington, and Wye. Or the major post-Oslo economic summits in Casablanca and Amman. Or even George Bush’s own multi-nation gathering at Sharm el-Sheikh. In other words, Annapolis was only historic if one either disregards history or discounts its importance.

Seen in this larger context, Annapolis, at best, represented a rather sad and pale reminder of what was, what might have been, what was lost, and several steps back from where the peace process was seven years ago.

One wants to be hopeful and supportive of every effort to end this horrible conflict, securing for Palestinians their long-denied rights. Given what transpired in the lead-up to Annapolis and at the Conference itself, however, it’s hard to be optimistic.

In the six months since the Bush Administration announced the Conference, too little preparation left the meeting, its agenda and goals, in limbo until the final day. And despite U.S. assurances to Arab participants that Israel would make significant confidence building gestures toward the Palestinians before the Conference, these did not occur.

Scrutinizing the joint statement issued by the parties at Annapolis, and examining in close detail statements issued by President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, there was little indication of any real movement toward a positive outcome. The goals set in the joint statement were too vague and limited, and the rhetoric used by the two leaders reflected old and failed hard-line policies that have brought stalemate for the last seven years.

The joint Israeli-Palestinian statement reflected, in itself, the fundamental dilemma plaguing this entire process. Both parties are politically weak. The Israelis, however, are by far the dominant force, able to dictate terms to their liking. Under these circumstances, the best Palestinians can do is say “no.” In this situation, for real substantive negotiations to take place, a third party (presumably the U.S.) must be willing and able to offer support to strengthen both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and to balance the scale between them by protecting the interests of the less powerful Palestinian negotiators. With the refusal of the U.S. to play this role, the result is an ambiguous statement like the one that was issued at Annapolis. In it, the best to which the Israelis and Palestinians could agree was to negotiate “core issues” (which they could not agree to define except to indicate that “core issues” referred to those “specified in prior agreements” – which they also could not agree to define); and to “make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.” In other words, they could not agree to implement, but only to try to agree.

For his part, Bush in his opening statement continued to espouse the same neoconservative vision that has infected his entire approach to the Middle East since 2002. In Bush’s view, democracy, like a magical elixir, trumps justice, and therefore makes all things right. Given this, Palestinians, he argued, should focus less on their borders and more on the character of their state. In Bush’s view, then, the challenges facing Palestinians are not to secure their rights and gain sovereignty, but to root out terror, establish a working democracy, operate with transparency, and form the institutions of a free society – all this before having a state of their own!

Bush added requirements for the Israelis in this process, but they were limited and far less onerous than even those he previously outlined. All the Israelis were asked to do is to remove unauthorized outposts, end settlement expansion, and “find other ways for the Palestinian Authority to exercise its responsibilities without compromising Israeli security” – whatever that means.

Israel’s Prime Minister, aside from some statements indicating his support for a Palestinian state and his commitment to make “painful compromises” to attain that goal, said little that would commit his government to steps that would put at risk his already fragile government coalition. For example, in one stroke, he defined away the refugee issue, proposing only to assist Palestinian refugees to find their place in a future Palestinian state. In another passage, Olmert describes his insistence that “previous agreements” would serve as the “point of departure” for future negotiations. One of the agreements he cited was President Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon in June of 2004. This, of course, was no agreement at all, but a unilateral give-away by the U.S. President to the Israeli Prime Minister.

In that letter, Bush commits to Israel:

•support for actions Israel takes to defend itself against terrorism (presumably including extrajudicial assassinations, the construction of a separation wall and acts of collective punishment, etc.);

•that in any future Israeli withdrawal, the U.S. understands that “existing arrangements regarding control of airspace, territorial waters and land passages…. will continue;”

•that the refugee issue will be resolved by the settling of Palestinian refugees in a future Palestinians state and not in Israel; and finally

•that “in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations” will result in Israel surrendering these population centers, which include primarily the settlements ringing Jerusalem.

Given all of this, it is hard to see a breakthrough, or be optimistic. The Conference is over, the delegates have gone home, preparing to meet “to make every effort” to complete an agreement. In a few days, major international donors will gather in Paris to provide needed financial support to the Palestinian Authority. That is a good thing.

The process is not dead; but absent a significant change in the U.S. approach, it’s barely on life support.

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