Much Ado About Annapolis

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 East.

"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."

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.