Those around the world who expected little more than cursory speeches from the Annapolis meeting this past week were not disappointed. Annapolis delivered those speeches, a few photo-ops and, something that was not as sure a result, a re-starting of discussions between Israel and the Palestinians. But the outcomes were also deeply flawed.
Annapolis was a one-day meeting that consisted of a lot more style than substance. Nonetheless, it was an important event in that it re-started a diplomatic process. Seven years of effective disengagement, have conclusively proven that absent such a process, matters get dramatically worse. The re-start of negotiations offers at least the hope of a slowing down of violations of international law, and certainly affords more opportunities for activists to work to influence the process. The fact that the Arab world is in support of this process (as opposed to the Camp David summit in 2000, for example) is an improvement over past conditions.
That said, the makeup and direction of both the conference and its intended aftermath seem to be more of the same thing that has failed so miserably in the past. Diplomatic engagement is good, but in order for it to be successful it must meet the following standards, none of which have been met by the agreement signed in Annapolis:
• International law must be the guiding principle of all the talks and Palestinians’ human and civil rights must be given the priority. In the short term, that means addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the dreadful conditions and restrictions in the West Bank which violate international law. In the long term, it means a full acknowledgment that the Palestinians are entitled to full self-determination, not only that which Israel will allow.
• Talks must be mediated in an honest and even-handed fashion. The US has shown time and time again that it is incapable of being an honest broker, and chances are that a future president will do no better, so the US must allow other bodies, such as the EU, UN or Quartet to fill that role.
• All concerned parties have to be engaged. It is absurd to believe that Hamas can be left outside of the entire process and that Abbas can then obtain any kind of peace deal that can survive in the real world. Moreover, it is not just to try to reach agreement if all the factions of one side or the other do not have their representation and their say.
• Iran must also be engaged so that an agreement can be sustainable and regional stability enhanced.
• Talk is fine, and important, but it must be accompanied by immediate steps toward improving conditions, otherwise it is doomed to failure. The disastrous Oslo process, which saw the doubling of Israeli settlements while peace was being negotiated, taught the world the importance of matching actions with words.
• Israel has every right to pursue security and the ending of shelling of its towns. But this issue does not supersede all others, and Israel, which has utterly failed to provide that security by military means, should be seeking to engage all the players, including Hamas, precisely to serve that interest, among the others we have listed.
These are basic elements that are necessary for any progress, and they were missing before Annapolis and remain so.
When our leaders fail us, it is up to civil society organizations and individuals everywhere to do everything possible to pressure our governments to put these issues on the table. Today we have an opening which we should take full advantage of, however small, to remind the world that a lasting and just peace really is possible if these basic standards are met. We cannot sit idly and wait for our leaders to make these commitments without pressure from citizens, religious groups, advocacy groups and others.
Human Rights and the Situation on the Ground
Virtually ignored in the various speeches at Annapolis was the fact that Israel intends, as soon as December 2, to begin cutting off Gaza’s power supply. The construction of the wall and expansion of existing settlements is continuing, as is Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land. The hundreds of checkpoints and numerous Israeli military operations in both the West Bank and Gaza daily are continuing.
Conditions in Gaza continue to deteriorate even before the power reduction, and the conditions in the West Bank have seen little improvement in the past few months despite the infusion of some badly-needed funds. Lives are being lost daily, and other lives are being devastated. Can anyone, whatever their proposed solutions and whatever their views of the larger conflict possibly believe that these conditions create an atmosphere where even the best intentions for peace can flourish?
It would not have been difficult to arrange for some immediate relief to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and at least some substantive measures to make some noticeable improvement in conditions in the West Bank, but this did not occur. Given that Israel has already made clear its intention to worsen those conditions, it is hard to see how any follow-up can make positive progress.
The conference saw Israel and the Palestinian Authority commit to negotiations aimed at a comprehensive treaty by the end of 2008. Whether that is realistic or not is open to debate, but left unaddressed are conditions that are necessary for such talks to have even a faint hope of success. Chief among these is the current lack of Palestinian unity in its leadership. Hamas has been completely isolated from these proceedings, and from any point of view, that means there is no possibility of any agreement forged between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert, however unlikely that may be, actually taking hold.
True, Hamas’ popularity has slipped considerably in recent months. A recent poll indicated that around 20% of Palestinian voters would vote for a Hamas candidate, much fewer than actually did vote for Hamas in the 2006 election which triggered sanctions against the Palestinians because the US, Israel, the EU and the Arab League as well were dissatisfied with the results of that election. But 20% is still a significant minority, and that figure encompasses only those who would vote for Hamas—their view on peace talks are likely shared by significantly more Palestinians. While that can be overcome through a political process expressing the will of the majority, it cannot simply be isolated and ignored. That is neither just, as that is the voice of a significant portion of the population, nor is it practical as 20% is enough to de-stabilize any agreement.
Another major problem is the list of documents that Ehud Olmert recited as the basis for future talks. He mentioned UNSC resolutions 242 and 338, which is good. He mentioned the Roadmap, which is considerably less useful, but its inclusion was to be expected. But he also mentioned George Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, which promised that Israel would not have to return to the 1967 borders and that no Palestinian refugee would ever return behind the Green Line. We at JVP have long decried this letter as the most egregious political and diplomatic blunder. Even if one believes that those promises should characterize a final deal between Israel and the Palestinians (which is not JVP’s stance), it is obvious that such a declaration by the US pre-empts any useful negotiations. This letter is only one among many examples of the US acting as an Israeli ally and not as an “honest broker” and demonstrates why the US is not seen as capable of being that honest broker. What does it leave the Palestinians to bargain with? Even as staunch an Israel-first advocate as Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY) decried this letter in Congress earlier this year. For any possible progress in talks, this letter must be rescinded, which is precisely what Olmert fears and was trying to prevent in his speech.
The Roadmap is the basis for the final status talks. It is not a good one, as the document is very thin, includes no enforcement mechanisms, and does not use human rights as a primary guide. But it is not going away as long as George Bush is president, so it is what there is. The lack of enforcement was addressed only minimally by installing the US as an arbiter and requiring periodic judgments from the US as to whether the two sides are meeting their obligations, but still providing no mechanism to address non-compliance. This can conceivably lead to some pressure on Israel to actually act on freezing settlement growth and removing outposts, all of which could, if promoters of justice and peace can act forcefully, lead to the beginning of removal of settlements. That is a very thin hope, and it comes at a price. Now, the US is the sole arbiter, rather than the Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia). True, the US dominated that group as well, but it had to make at least some effort to appease the other bodies, which do not have the “special relationship” with Israel that makes US mediation and brokership so problematic. Now the only “broker” is the one that clearly declares its favoritism for one side over the other. It’s hard to see how that can lead to positive results. It will be important in the coming months to renew efforts for wider international involvement.
Syria, Iran and the Arab League
Syria’s last-minute agreement to attend the conference was an important positive development. If one looks carefully, however, at the words of both Olmert and Bush, we see laid bare the different goals of the US and Israel. Olmert’s speech included a call for peace with all the surrounding states, and his listing of the different directions of those states (north, east and south), was clearly meant to include Syria. Bush, on the other hand, explicitly stated that Syria was not to be part of the process yet. Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, stated clearly that any peace deal must include Syria and the return of the Golan Heights. It is important that this call be supported, not only because dealing with Syria is a necessary component of a sustainable peace, but also because Syria can be instrumental in bringing Hamas into the process. This is necessary both to heal the rift among the Palestinians, but also for any chance for a sustainable peace, whatever the parameters.
This also touches on the continuing effort to isolate Iran. It is foolhardy to set up a situation where peace negotiations are a threat to Iran. This only sets up failure and the intensification of the already dangerous standoff with Iran. Bombastic rhetoric aside, Iran has proven over the years that they can be engaged in diplomatic processes and it is indispensable to do so in this regard.
Olmert’s brief acknowledgment of the Arab League offer, issued in 2002 and repeated earlier this year, was positive but far from sufficient. The Arab League put this proposal forward as the outline of negotiations, because it addresses the basic Palestinian demands and offers Israel exactly what it wants—peace, full recognition and full normalization of relations with the Arab world. That this is not the basis for the continuing talks is indefensible. True, the Arab League’s current positioning has at least as much to do with their fear of Iran as it does with justice for the Palestinians, but they are also not in favor of escalating the tensions with Iran, much less of a war which will cause their region great harm. This argues not only for engagement with Iran and negotiations with Syria but also demonstrates how much potential there is right now for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel and the US are apparently determined, however, to let this chance pass by.
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