Mission accomplished

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert smile for the cameras at Annapolis, Maryland, 26 November 2007. (Omar Rashidi/MaanImages)

So it is over. The much heralded Annapolis “meeting” attended by over 50 countries and organizations has ended, and the result is a vague, non-binding agreement to begin negotiating. In typical fashion, the Bush administration has hailed the conference of low-expectations and even less tangible results as a “success.” Instead of donning a flight suit and landing on an aircraft carrier, US President George W. Bush offered his best Bill Clinton imitation presiding over a ceremonial handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, like an approving father or Roman emperor. However, rather than remind observers of the halcyon days of September 1993, the oft repeated handshake between Israeli and Palestinian leaders leads many to paraphrase Karl Marx: “History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce.” Indeed, a farce has been carried out in the last week of November, where the conference was symbolically and cynically timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ vote to partition Palestine. If symbolism was what the Bush administration sought in planning this conference, they were at least partially successful, as both Saudi Arabia and Syria sent high level diplomatic officials. Yet, the emptiness of those symbols and associated declarations served to only further engender cynicism among observers around the world working toward a just resolution of this conflict.

While President Bush spoke about bringing “peace to the holy land” it is hard to ignore that for over six years his administration has steadfastly refused to engage in meaningful diplomacy aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, they chose to back the “iron fist” policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Contrary to their rhetoric, closer analysis reveals that the Bush Administration has neither the political will, nor the desire, to resolve the conflict and create a Palestinian state. Indeed, President Bush lacks the attention span and motivation to even preside over the “process” of negotiations. That task has fallen on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Although she largely ignored the conflict during her term as National Security Adviser and first two years as Secretary of State, Rice’s decision to reengage late last year was driven by Washington’s attempt to contain Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. The need for containment was further reinforced by Israel’s failed invasion of Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and with it, the Bush Administration’s vision, as enunciated by Rice, of a “new Middle East.” Publication of the Iraq Study Group report in late 2006 provided political cover for Rice against neoconservatives in the administration opposed to the US reengaging in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Led by former Secretary of State James Baker III, the main adviser to former President George H.W. Bush and architect of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the report called for Washington to reengage in the Arab-Israeli peace process. The result of Rice’s belated efforts is a diplomatic strategy which combines the “confidence-building measures” of the Oslo Accords with the “performance-based benchmarks” of the “Roadmap for Peace.” Moreover, Rice has clearly learned from her predecessors that all American Secretaries of State are required to perform public shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, in order to provide the appearance that something is being accomplished.

In spite of her many visits to the region over the past year, her sole tangible offering has been to introduce the term “political horizon” into the lexicon of a conflict already inundated with banal phrases and euphemisms. However, she has never defined the parameters of that “horizon.” Indeed, Rice explained to representatives of American Jewish organizations in February that the US would not offer any suggestions on the “political horizon” once negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians commenced, nor would it pressure Israel. [1] Thus begging the question, what will the Bush Administration do to ensure the success of these negotiations it has initiated? As the Bush presidency nears its end and an American election year begins, the answer is, very little.

The lack of serious engagement and half-hearted effort has not gone unnoticed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or his government. While they also speak of a “political horizon” to appease Rice, The New York Times recently reported that Israeli officials have created a disparaging verb, “lecondel,” based on the Secretary of State’s first name that means to “come and go for meetings that produce few results.” [2] In interviews conducted after the Annapolis meeting, Olmert explained to reporters that Israel was ready to make “painful compromises.” [3] Yet, in the weeks leading up to the conference, Israeli actions told a different story. While there was talk of yet another “settlement freeze,” Israel announced that a new road from Jerusalem to Jericho would be built on seized Palestinian land, cutting the West Bank into two disconnected parts. Although Israeli officials claimed the road was designed to improve travel for Palestinians, the construction plans and announcement were not discussed with the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership. Requests by the PA for American intervention to reverse the decision was met with the typical response that Washington did not want the parties to take actions which would “prejudice the outcome” of negotiations. [4] Less than a week later, Israeli officials announced they were also resuming excavation work near Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. While Olmert authorized the release of 451 Palestinian prisoners in November, a greater number have been arrested in the frequent military incursions into the West Bank over the past two months. Moreover, Israel has dramatically reduced the fuel supplies entering Gaza, and threatens to reduce power supplies beginning in early December. Olmert’s notion of “painful compromises” really means causing the Palestinians “pain” that will induce them to “compromise.”

Abbas’ speech at Annapolis appeared to demonstrate that he would hold a hard line in negotiations. However, his supporters have hinted that he is ready to make concessions. This includes renouncing the right of return of Palestinian refugees in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 “Green Line” borders. [5] Israel has also been pressuring the Palestinian leadership to recognize it as a “state for the Jewish people” and Palestine as the “state for the Palestinian people.” While Palestinian negotiators claim that such a statement will not prejudice the status of Palestinians in Israel, such a declaration is a clear attempt by Israel to defuse the “demographic threat” and the small but growing chorus for a one-state solution to the conflict. [6] In spite of his rhetoric before and during the Annapolis conference, Abbas is beholden to both the US and Israel for support and lacks any effective strategy of his own, leaving him little choice but to accede to Washington’s new “process.” Thus, placing Palestinians in an unenviable position as they watch while an unelected and unrepresentative clique claim to negotiate on their behalf, but in reality pursue their own narrow self-interests. Moreover, Hamas’ and Fatah’s selfish and myopic pursuit of control over the PA threatens to further enshrine civil strife within the Palestinian territories, undermining any attempts at national unity and reconciliation to resist these policies.

Some optimistic observers believe that the Bush Administration’s new attention to the “peace process” is a hopeful sign. They believe that the pressure of public negotiations will force those “painful compromises.” While it is true the first round of negotiations in mid-December will receive a great deal of media attention, as the history of this conflict and the peace process has repeatedly demonstrated, by the third, fourth and fifth rounds the attention of American politicians, policymakers and the press will be elsewhere. Again, demonstrating why Annapolis was a farce.

Historically, successful diplomatic summits have resulted in a peace treaty not a “process” or a “framework for negotiations.” This is due to the presence of senior government officials and the momentum and trust built from negotiations that are actively facilitated by a major power. It is not a photo-op with a disengaged and indolent president who promises to be active in the future. The resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been known for over 40 years, an additional 14 months of negotiations is not intended to conclude a peace but prevent one. Moreover, the Arab League Peace Initiative which is based on existing UN resolutions and international law has been offered to Israel twice in the past five years and rejected both times. In addition, countless studies have been conducted by the UN, the World Bank, and numerous universities, think-tanks and non-governmental organizations on the different parameters not just for a peaceful settlement, but for political and economic coexistence and cooperation. What is needed now is not another “process” for negotiations, but the political will by the US and Israel to agree to, and institute, the existing agreements. Anything less is designed to further entrench and institutionalize the occupation while wringing additional concessions from the Palestinians and the Arab states.

Of course that is the true goal of this “process,” an amalgam of the strategies of two former Israeli Prime Ministers: Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon. After leaving office, Shamir explained why he agreed to attend the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, stating that although Israel participated in negotiations with the Palestinians, “I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years and meanwhile we would have reached a half million people in Judea and Samaria.” [7] Sharon’s strategy is best described by his adviser, Dov Weissglas, who explained in 2004 that the Gaza disengagement plan “supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” This would not only “prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state” but also forestall “a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.” [8] In launching this new “peace process,” the Bush Administration continues to provide Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestinian land with the requisite time to create further facts on the ground and stifle Palestinian aspirations for a viable, independent state. In order for this to be successful, Washington and Tel Aviv need a Palestinian leadership that will actively participate in such a charade in return for US funding and the title of President or Prime Minister. Abbas and his appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are perfectly suited for this role and are in the process of obtaining the necessary political, economic and military support from the US and Israel to maintain their positions against internal opponents, including Hamas and other members of Fatah.

Like the old “peace process,” the new one will not end in a Palestinian state in 2008. The strategy adopted by Abbas and his cronies of relying on the United States for salvation is doomed to fail. Palestinians in the Diaspora and inside Palestine must decide what will take its place. Will they allow their century of struggle to end with permanent confinement and rule by a US-backed thugocracy, or mobilize to retake and revive their national movement? Only by reclaiming and remaking into an organization representative of all Palestinians can they determine their future. There is no alternative.

Osamah Khalil is a Palestinian-American doctoral candidate in US and Middle East History at the University of California at Berkeley, focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at okhalil@berkeley.edu.

Related Links

[1] Nathan Guttman, “Rice Briefs Jewish Groups as Palestinians Make Deal Says US Wants To Create ‘Political Horizon,’ But Won’t Pressure Israel,” Forward, 9 February 2007.
[2] Steven Erlanger, “Diplomatic Memo: US and Israel Play Down Hopes for Peace Talks,” The New York Times, 12 November 2007.
[3] Robert Siegal, “Interview with Ehud Olmert: Israel is Prepared for a Compromise,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 27 November 2007.
[4] “Briefing En Route Tel Aviv, Israel,” US Department of State, 14 October 2007 (http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2007/10/93533.htm)
[5] Khaled Abu Toameh, Khaled, “Nusseibeh: Right of Return for Withdrawal to ‘67 Borders,” The Jerusalem Post, 28 October 2007.
[6] Khaled Amayreh, “A Putative Peace,” Al-Ahram, 4-10 October 2007.
[7] Joseph Harif, “Interview with Yizakh Shamir,” Ma’ariv, 26 June 1992; Avi Shlaim, “Prelude to the Accord: Likud, Labor, and the Palestinians,” Journal of Palestine Studies, p 23 (1994).
[8] Avi Shavit, “The Big Freeze,” Haaretz, 8 October 2004.