ANNAPOLIS, Maryland - The Middle East peace conference that began and ended
here on this crisp, sunny Tuesday was lean on specifics for a lasting peace
deal between Israel and Palestine and the formation of a Palestinian state.
Dealing with a timeline for continued talks on "final status" issues,
rather than the contentious issues themselves, the conference delivered few
changes to the status quo.
The summit of representatives from over 50 nations and international groups
convened on Tuesday at the US Naval Academy under the leadership of President
George W. Bush to discuss the slow process of building a lasting regional peace
between Israel and its Arab neighbors by creating a new state in the Middle
"Our purpose here in Annapolis is not to conclude an agreement. Rather
it is to launch negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians," said Bush
in his opening remarks to the gathered delegates.
But by painting the process in terms that former Israeli negotiator Daniel
Levy called a "Star Wars-like battle between good and evil," Bush
may be creating further rifts that will yield a wider gap in already-divided
Palestinian and Arab populations, compromising the viability of a Palestinian
state as well as his own grand regional aspirations.
Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas during his initial comments, Bush read a joint statement agreed
upon by both leaders.
Many observers did not believe that a joint statement would be completed and
accepted by both sides in time for the conference because of continuing difficulties
on the final status issues regarding the details of the formation of a new state.
The statement produced one of the few signs of concrete progress to emerge
from the conference – the announcement of the formation of a steering committee
towards the establishment of a Palestinian state and continual biweekly meetings
between Abbas and Olmert. Bush said the committee would hold its first meeting
on Dec. 12.
"We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and
shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008,"
read Bush from the statement – a sentiment echoed by Olmert when he repeated
the timeline for the upcoming bilateral talks in his comments.
However, many of the core differences between the Palestinians and Israelis
were on full display in sometimes veiled and sometimes explicit references during
Olmert and Abbas' speeches.
"Tomorrow, we have to start comprehensive and deep negotiations on all
issues of final status, including Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements,
water and security and others," said Abbas, essentially giving a laundry
list of Palestinian issues to be addressed in the upcoming discussions.
Olmert began his comments by recounting the bombings of buses, cafes and recreational
centers by Palestinian terrorists during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem –
alluding to the oft-cited Israeli concern about the Palestinian Authority being
unable to provide security.
But Olmert also acknowledged that the Palestinian refugee situation plays a
part in the anti-Israeli feelings in Palestine, saying, "I know that this
pain and this humiliation are the deepest foundations which fomented the ethos
of hatred toward us. We are not indifferent to this suffering. We are not oblivious
to the tragedies that you have experienced."
The acknowledgement is significant because Israelis have long made the ability
of the Palestinian Authority to end violence directed at Israel a prerequisite
to a Palestinian state. The concept was solidified by the multi-phased "roadmap"
in which certain benchmarks needed to be met in order for discussion on Palestinian
statehood to begin.
"The positive thing to come out of this was to reverse the order of the
roadmap," Levy told IPS. "The one new component today is that you
have permanent status negotiations now in parallel with the roadmap."
With critics deriding the ad hoc planning of the conference, all three leaders
made comments defending its timing.
"I believe now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations,
for a number of reasons," said Bush, citing the readiness of Abbas, Olmert
and the international community.
Bush also made a point of his desire to use the conference to combat extremism
in the region. He hopes that by bringing a broad Arab coalition into the peace
process, it will create a favorable view of the United States in the Middle
East to counter that extremism – particularly growing Iranian influence.
But this, too, has drawn criticism. The US is widely perceived as only taking
interest in the process when it is politically beneficial – as with the Bush
administration's reluctant endorsement of the "roadmap" to peace in
2003 just as it was trying to gain support for the invasion of Iraq.
"Olmert gave an uplifting and empathetic speech and Abbas's speech was
empathetic as well," said Levy, now the director of the Middle East Policy
Initiative at the New America Foundation. "It was the Bush speech that
was the most undermining of the entire Annapolis exercise."
"The world that they live in where isolating Iran and defeating Hamas
all fit in nicely with the creation of the two-state solution does not fit in
the real world. In the real world if you want a two-state solution, you need
maximum consensus. You drive towards consensus, not division. And [Bush] lives
in a world of division."
Iranian-backed Hamas, not invited to the conference despite their de facto
power sharing with Abbas's Fatah faction, held a rally in Gaza on Monday night
attacking any potential compromise with Israel. The group's leader, Ismail Haniya,
said that all land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River should be
returned to Palestine, and, "We will not recognize Israel."
Syria's late entry into the conference with a lower level delegation on Sunday
– despite its backing of Hamas and lack of diplomatic relations with Israel
– is seen as evidence of the increasing isolation of the radical Islamic movement,
though Syria drew flack of its own from Iran for dealing with Israel.
But with any significant US and Israeli détente with Syria and other
Arab countries still looking unlikely, it appears that Bush's bid to build an
anti-Iran coalition through the peace process could face the same hurdle as
the roadmap – asking too much up front.
Another attendee with no official ties to Israel, the foreign minister of Saudi
Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, made strong statements at a press briefing at
the Saudi embassy on Monday where he distanced himself from any normalization
of relations with Israel in the immediate future, saying that he would not shake
hands with Olmert.
"We have not come here for theatrics," said al-Faisal. "But
we have come to do serious work to achieve peace and when it is accomplished
and hands are extended to us for peace greetings, then we will shake hands."
Washington's misguided effort to look at the peace process through the lens
of the "war on terror" may be a significant obstacle towards seeing
a solution to the conflict itself, some analysts say.
"It is about a grievance," said Levy, naming the occupation of Palestine
by Israel. "You end the grievance and you solve the problem."
(Inter Press Service)