Madrid to Annapolis
It is not entirely clear what the agenda of the November Middle East peace conference ominously to take place at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis is all about. Is it a thinly-veiled attempt to ensure Arab recognition for the state of Israel?
No preliminary meetings have taken place to date. Indeed, the precise nature of the autumn meeting is shrouded in mystery. Why is the agenda so vague? The only certainty is that we all know where the venue actually is, but it is the purpose of the meeting that we all want to know about.
Again, it is of vital importance that the November conference is not restricted to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is billed as being about creating peace in the region, which means it should at least address the Syria-Israel stand-off and the crisis in Lebanon. The return of the Golan Heights to Syria is a pivotal demand by the Syrians. And, as far as this matter is concerned, all Arab states, indeed all nations, except perhaps Israel and the US, are in agreement that the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights must be recognised as Syrian territory. In other words, Israel must be prepared to give this strategic territory up.
Damascus has stated openly that it will boycott the November conference if the return of the Golan Heights is not included in the agenda. Indeed, the main goal of the November conference should be the redressing of all the wrongs of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
It is understandable that the debate over the American-led occupation of Iraq be excluded from the discussion at the November conference. Iraq requires an entirely separate summit, with the focus exclusively on the US debacle there.
So far the concerns of Syria and the Lebanese political impasse are not on the agenda. Neither does the Darfur catastrophe feature anywhere in the November conference. And the same goes for the Somali crisis. The Iranian dispute with the US is also sidelined. It is clear that the Americans and Israelis want the November conference to spotlight the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why?
Arab public opinion is divided over the real significance of the November conference. However, there is considerable suspicion about the real motives of the American hosts and their Israeli backers. There is a consensus that the Israelis have ulterior motives. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni craftily called the conference a "forum for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue with the support of the Arab world" at a press conference at the United Nations. The thin edge of the wedge of recognition?
It is in this context that President Hosni Mubarak called for clear agenda for the Middle East conference to be drafted.
The problem is that the Israelis must be prepared to compromise and provide concessions. The Israelis did not concede anything to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had widespread popular appeal. The current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is in a far more difficult position. He is not nearly so popular, and is struggling to unite the Palestinian people at a time when they ar e deeply divided. There is the ideological and political confrontation between Hamas and Fatah and even within his own Fatah there are grave political divisions and rival strands are vying for political dominance. Abu Mazen finds himself in a much weakened position which the Israelis no doubt will try to take advantage of.
It is clear that the US and Israel want to isolate Hamas -- not a very good start for the conference. There should not be any preconditions on excluding them as legitimate representatives of the Palestinians. Hamas should be accepted as a critical component of the Palestinian national identity. Hamas cannot be excluded or dismissed on the pretext that it is an enemy of Israel. Many Palestinians subscribe to the political perspective of Hamas, and the world cannot exclude Hamas and their considerable constituency of sympathisers among Palestinians. We should be aware that the 1991 Madrid conference failed miserably. We do not want a repeat of the disastrous experience of Madrid. Given that Israel is clearly playing to gain de facto recognition, Arab leaders should keep in mind they have the option of boycotting it.