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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Will Annapolis matter?

In a well-written article in this morning's Wall Street Journal, former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephen's refers to the Annapolis conference mugging as "Condoleeza Rice's pointless Middle East conference." (Hat Tip: Jewish Current Issues)
No wonder, then, that as skepticism about Annapolis grows its perceived significance shrinks. What was originally billed as a conference is now being described by the State Department as a "meeting." What was originally envisaged as a three-day event has become a one-day event. There is, as of this writing, no firm list of participants. And there are whispers the date of the meeting may be pushed back, perhaps to December..

As for the agenda, there isn't one. Substantive discussions have been ruled out. There was some hope that Israelis and Palestinians would agree to a joint "declaration of principles," but they could not come up with a common text. Now there's talk of issuing separate declarations, or doing without declarations altogether.

Among the principles sharply in dispute is whether Israel is a Jewish state. "We will not agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state," says Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, adding that "there is no country in the world where religious and national identities are intertwined." Counters Mr. Olmert: "We won't have an argument with anyone in the world over the fact that Israel is a state of the Jewish people. Whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me."

One would have thought the question of Israel's Jewishness was settled 60 years ago by a U.N. partition plan that speaks of a "Jewish state" some 30 times. (One would have thought, too, that Mr. Erekat would be mindful of his government's membership in the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference.) But the question hasn't been settled because Palestinians will not concede the "right" of their "refugees"--currently numbering in the millions--to return to their ancestral homes and farms in present-day Israel.

Despite nearly 20 years of trying, there is simply no finessing these differences. If Israel is not a Jewish state, it may as well be called Palestine. If the existential issues of 1948 cannot be resolved, there is little point in addressing the territorial issues of 1967, which are themselves almost impossible to address. Matters are not helped by the unusual political weakness of the key participants. In the last year, Mr. Abbas has lost half his kingdom. He will swiftly lose what remains of it the moment "Palestine" comes into being and the Israeli army isn't around to suppress Hamas as an effective fighting force.

Mr. Olmert's governing coalition depends on two parties--the ultraorthodox Shas and ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu--which are opposed to any substantive concessions. The prime minister faces potential criminal indictments in multiple probes connected to his previous tenure as minister of trade and industry. A forthcoming official inquiry on last year's war in Lebanon will reportedly hold him accountable for the deaths of 33 soldiers. Ariel Sharon is still in a coma, but it's his successor who's really on life support.
I wish I could be as dismissive of the 'conference' as Stephens is. I cannot be. The main reason I cannot be is that the Bush administration has repeated on several occasions that if one party is deemed to be at fault for the conference's failure, that party will be blamed. While the Clinton administration all but blamed the 'Palestinians' for the Camp David conference's failure, I don't see that happening this time. If the 'Palestinians' are blamed this time, the Bush administration knows that Hamas will be in charge in Judea and Samaria the next morning. And the Olmert-Barak-Livni government has done too good a job of convincing the Bush administration that really matters and that Hamas is any worse than Fatah. My fear is that even though the 'conference' is doomed to failure, it is Israel that will be blamed.

A second reason I cannot dismiss the 'conference' is that I believe that at the 'conference' - or shortly thereafter - Prime Minister Ehud K. Olmert will freeze all construction - including construction for which permits have been issued - in Judea, Samaria and those parts of Jerusalem that were not in 'Israel proper' on June 4, 1967 as yet another 'concession' to the 'Palestinians' and to try to forestall being blamed for the 'conference's inevitable failure.

The Olmert-Barak-Livni government is running around like a chicken with its head cut off in fear of being blamed for Annapolis' failure. The 'Palestinians' have no such fear. Look how Olmert and Co. are behaving in the lead-up to Annapolis and look at how the 'Palestinians' are behaving. On the Israeli side:
1. Yesterday, the cabinet announced the release of another 441 'Palestinian' prisoners terrorists from jail.

2. This morning, the government is telling anyone who will listen that a 'joint statement' with the 'Palestinians' is near. The 'Palestinians' are 'less optimistic.'

3. Despite continuing attacks on the Negev from Gaza, the government has refused to allow the IDF to enter Gaza and it has refused to do or say anything that would link Annapolis to the stoppage of terror. This despite the fact that many - if not most - of the rockets being fired from Gaza are being fired by Abu Mazen's Fatah terrorist organization.

4. Israel has agreed to put the Golan Heights on the table at the 'conference' in a bid to induce the Syrians to attend.

5. Today, Olmert is in Sharm-el-Sheikh seeking Egyptian help in inducing other Arab countries to participate in the 'conference.' You don't see the 'Palestinians' begging anyone to attend. And the Egyptians themselves last week called for the 'conference' to be canceled 'postponed indefinitely.'

6. Olmert is falling all over himself trying to convince anyone who will listen that no more 'settlements' will be built. He'd love to freeze all construction in the 'settlements' before Annapolis, but he cannot do that because it would likely precipitate Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas bolting the government and leaving him without a majority coalition. As noted above, I would look for that commitment to be made at Annapolis or shortly thereafter.
On the 'Palestinian' side, the behavior is completely different.
1. The 'Palestinians' threaten almost daily not to attend the 'conference.' For example, yesterday they dispatched two 'top envoys' - Yasser Abed Rabbo and Akram Haniyeh - to Washington, to tell the Americans that they would not attend unless 'key Arab nations' attend.

2. The 'Palestinians' say that they will not attend unless they know in advance what concessions Israel will make (imagine the Olmert-Barak-Livni government saying it will not attend unless the 'Palestinians' agree in advance to drop the 'right of return').

3. The 'Palestinians' continue to submit lists of ever-growing demands on which their attendance at the 'conference' is conditioned. For example:
Abbas is scheduled to attend a meeting of the Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo later this week to seek backing for his demands ahead of the conference. PA Information Minister Riad Malki told reporters after the meeting that Israel must first promise to fulfill the following pre-conditions before the Annapolis conference: end settlement construction and natural growth of settlers, dismantle settlement outposts, remove IDF checkpoints and reopen all closed PLO institutions in east Jerusalem.

"If Israel agrees to meet these conditions, that would be enough for the Palestinian Authority and the Arab countries to attend the Annapolis conference," Malki said. He added that with regards to the fundamental issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees, the two parties were closer than ever to reaching agreement.

Malki said the Palestinians see the forthcoming conference as a real opportunity to achieve peace in the Middle East. He said the PA was also demanding that a Palestinian state be established within six months after the Annapolis conference or before the end of US President George W. Bush's term in office.

Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat on Monday dispatched letters to representatives of the Quartet and other countries urging them to exert pressure on Israel to meet the demands of the Palestinians.
4. The 'Palestinians' continue to issue ominous warnings of the consequences of the 'conference's 'failure.'
A spokesman for Abbas's Fatah faction in the West Bank warned that failure at Annapolis would lead to "disaster" and "confrontations" in the region. "Failure of efforts to achieve peace will lead to a catastrophe, confrontation and political suicide for Israel," said Nayef Ishtawi, spokesman for the shabiba Fatah youth movement. " [More plausible deniability for Abu Mazen. CiJ] Israeli intransigence will sabotage the conference and Israel will be fully and historically responsible for wasting a chance to achieve peace and security."
5. The 'Palestinians' continue to argue over the most basic issue, pointed out by Stephens above: whether they accept Israel as a Jewish state. Between that and the 'right of return,' they are trying to turn the 'conference' into one that deals with 1948's issues before settling 1967's. Israel's participation in the 'conference' is supposedly premised on it dealing with 1967's issues and on 1948's issues having already been resolved.
It should be clear from all the above, that the 'Palestinians' are going into the conference with their heads held high, while Israel is bobbing and weaving trying to avoid being hit.

Fifty countries are to be invited to Annapolis. Unless forty-eight of them are named Micronesia, none of them other than the United States is likely to be a friend of Israel. Israel is going to be overwhelmed with enemies at the 'conference.' And with their legacy on the line, Condoleeza Rice and George Bush seem to be ready to abandon friendship in favor of history.

That's why I believe Annapolis will matter and that's why I can't dismiss it as Secretary of State Rice's 'pointless fiasco,' however accurate that description might otherwise be.


At 2:53 PM, Blogger etabori said...

Excellent analysis. By the way how do you cross words like conference. How is it done?
Please reply to : etabori@hotmail.com

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

The Clinton administration did blame Arafat for failing at Camp David. After all Barak had tried to give away the store and it still wasn't enough. However they continued pressing Barak to negotiate even after Sept 28.

And they consistently blamed Netanyahu for obstruction, though all he was doing was taking them at their word.

At 12:22 AM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...

Soccer Dad,

You're right. However, my recollection is that they did not blame Arafat until long after the event. For example, Clinton's conversation with Arafat in which he told him "you made me a failure" was not made public until after Clinton had left the White House.

In the immediate aftermath, they didn't say anything because they wanted Barak to go to Taba. But they didn't need to pressure Barak - he wanted to do it.

Barak was unpopular when the intifada broke out and he didn't respond. He had no coalition. But he had two advantages Olmert didn't have. He wasn't beset by scandals - the only reason people were after him was because his response to the intifada was ineffective. And since he was directly elected, Barak could be pushed out without the Knesset disbanding. That made it easier for the Knesset to do what had to be done.


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