One year after Annapolis

Mahmoud Abbas, George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert at the Annapolis summit, November 2007. (Omar Rashidi/MaanImages)

It seems like another age, but it was only one year ago that United States President George W. Bush and his administration were preparing to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to launch a final push for a peace settlement.

The resulting conference in Annapolis, Maryland, was attended by officials from dozens of countries, the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, the Quartet and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, among many others. Only the democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people under occupation, besieged in Gaza, were not invited.

Although the summit was never intended to produce an agreement in itself, it was supposed to signal that the US and all the other countries would put their full weight in order to achieve a comprehensive agreement by the end of Bush’s presidency.

Only a fool, or an “enemy of peace” would have dared at the time express doubt about the credibility of the effort or the commitment of those who stood behind it. For many it seemed hard to believe that the world’s only superpower would once again set off on the perilous path of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking unless this time it was prepared to go all the way.

Bush had held out his “vision” of two states “living side by side in peace,” and now he was going to deliver it. This was the consensus reflected by dozens of Arab and foreign diplomats, journalists and others who I talked to or whose opinions I read.

I admit that I was one of the few skeptics (a fool perhaps, but never an enemy of peace) who had not the tiniest amount of hope that any such thing would happen. And there was no need to wait long to be proven right — even though there is no satisfaction in that.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wasted no time in torpedoing any hopes; as soon as he got home from Annapolis he declared his government’s intention to massively expand Israeli colonies around occupied Jerusalem which, he claimed, was not even on the peace process agenda since it was the “united and eternal capital of Israel.” This being the case, he reasoned, settlement building was a purely internal Israeli matter and no one else’s business.

Other Israeli leaders rushed to dismiss the year-end deadline as not sacred, and set the recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” (which can legally discriminate against non-Jews) as a precondition. The Annapolis sponsors and enthusiasts preferred not to pay too much attention to Israel’s rapid and calculated sabotage of their efforts, nor to the other signals that Israel had no intention or desire to arrive at the stated endpoint of the peace process.

Regular meetings between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continued without producing one single positive outcome other than to placate US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose own frequent forays in the region were equally sterile. Palestinian and Israeli negotiating delegations met dozens of times without putting on paper a single word or issuing a single statement on any one thing on which they agreed.

It is almost a year after Annapolis, and weeks before the Bush administration exits the stage. Olmert, due to his corruption scandals, has been a lame duck for months, and Abbas, also months away from the expiry of his legal term of office, never commanded loyalty or authority among enough Palestinians to strike a deal on their behalf, assuming a deal was ever on offer.

As usual, a lot of misguided analysis is once again attributing the failure of the peace process to the imminent departure of the leaders committed to it, thus obscuring the objective factors that made the failure inevitable. Such flawed reasoning holds that once new leaderships are in place in Washington, Tel Aviv and Israeli-occupied Ramallah, the process can begin anew.

This is a game that suits the participants well; Rice — the lamest of lame ducks — is heading back to the region to meet a powerless caretaker prime minister in Israel and a powerless Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah. What can this possibly achieve other than to preserve the illusion of an ongoing “process?”

Sadly, many others who heavily invested in the peace process industry will prefer to latch on to these empty maneuvers as signs of “hope” rather than admit that they contain no substance that can ever lead to justice and peace.

But let me be clear: the negotiations did not reach a dead end because the negotiators ran out of time and are now leaving the scene. They failed because there was no viable peace project, because Israel, the strongest party, was not interested in reaching a reasonable settlement, and the sponsors of the process lacked the political courage to stand up to Israeli obstruction.

There is no reason to believe that any of this is going to change in the short term, no matter who is elected president in Washington or who comes to power in Israel. Nor are there many signs that Europe, which rarely wanted to distance its Middle East policy from that of Washington, even when there are serious misgivings and disastrous results, is about to change course. On the contrary, after Bush, Europe will be only too eager to make amends to Washington, and it is likely that Palestinians will be among the victims of such a rapprochement.

Nor is there yet any sign the peace process sponsors will allow Palestinians to freely chose leaders who serve Palestinian, rather than Israeli interests. Nevertheless, Palestinians must continue their efforts to represent themselves and their cause despite the obstacles placed in their way.

One should therefore not submit to the concept that the peace process is on temporary hold and will resume on its successful and inevitable path once new leaders are in place. That will never happen in the absence of a plan whose goal is to restore Palestinian rights, implement international law and seek justice for all. Above all, those who continue to invest their efforts in the peace process will have to demonstrate something they never have: the political will and determination to stand up to Israeli rejectionism, colonialism and aggression.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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