A putative peace
The chances of anything positive emerging from the upcoming peace summit on Palestine grow daily less, writes Khaled Amayreh from Ramallah
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has privately threatened to resign if the upcoming American- sponsored international peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, ends in failure. According to sources within Abbas's immediate circle, the Palestinian leader is increasingly worried that a fiasco at the much-heralded conference would undermine his credibility among Palestinians, including members of his own Fatah Party.
Abass's threat to resign has been widely reported, though it is unclear whether it is genuine or a bluff intended to signal to Washington and Tel Aviv that the PA is already fed up with Israel's stalling tactics as well as with America's refusal to exert meaningful pressure on Israel to end its 40-year-old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Abbas is also worried that should the putative peace conference fail, as many pundits predict it will, then the Bush administration will no longer be in a position to exert any kind of pressure on Israel. With the 2008-elections just around the corner, Bush would become a lame duck.
Meanwhile, there are unconfirmed reports from Washington that the US administration may postpone the peace conference to late November or even December in an attempt to provide more time for Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to iron out their differences. If true, the delay could lead to the cancellation of the conference altogether if Olmert and Abbas fail to make progress in their talks.
Palestinian and Israeli leaders have so far been unable to reach a common conceptual framework for any prospective peace agreement between the two sides.
The reported delay would also vindicate reservations voiced recently in the Middle East, particularly by Egyptian and Saudi leaders, that the upcoming conference lacked the preparatory groundwork necessary for success.
Abbas and Olmert, together with their respective negotiating teams, were due to meet in West Jerusalem on Wednesday in a new effort to agree a declaration of principles, or even a joint statement that could be released before the Annapolis conference. Yet there are serious differences, which in some cases amount to contradictions, between the two sides as to what the declaratory statement might contain.
Abbas insists that Israel and the PA must reach a "general agreement" or "concordance" on the "core" issues that define the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These include ending the occupation that started in 1967, dismantling Jewish settlements, and determining the status of East Jerusalem and the plight of five million Palestinian refugees.
Olmert has a different understanding of what needs to be done at this stage. According to Israeli sources, the Israeli prime minister is pressing the PA leadership to sign up to a declaration of "intent" rather than "principle".
Palestinian political commentator Hani Al-Masri explains the differences. "A declaration of intent is non-binding, general and vague. Olmert doesn't want to commit himself to anything concrete with regard to ending the occupation. This is why I believe that the Palestinians should stay away from the conference."
Concern is growing, Al-Masri continued, that Israel, in league with the Bush administration, is trying to change the legal references upon which the entire peace process has been based.
"Until recently everyone was talking about UN resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for the peace process. Now, it seems that President Bush's vision of two states living together has become the main reference.
"This would be a disaster for the Palestinian cause. It means that Israel would be able to retain large parts of the occupied West Bank, including the bulk of East Jerusalem," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Nor is it clear why the PA is insisting on a new declaration of principle given the parties are presumably still committed to the Oslo Agreement.
Palestinian intellectuals and commentators are already criticising Abbas for playing into Israeli hands by agreeing to indulge in protracted pre-negotiations with Israel which, they say, will corrode any overall Palestinian stand vis-à-vis core issues.
For their parts, Israeli officials have been urging Arab states not to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, on a visit to New York this week, complained that the position of certain Arab states was emboldening the Palestinians and consequently impeding peace. Livni urged the PA leadership to be "realistic", suggesting that Palestinian demands for a total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories pursuant to the pertinent UN resolutions was a non-starter.
Addressing the UN General Assembly this week Livni spoke of two states, Palestine for Palestinians and Israel for Jews, remarks that some observers interpreted as opening up the possibility of the eventual expulsion from Israel of its estimated 1.5 million Palestinian citizens.
This week the Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that Olmert had already obtained from Abbas a recognition in principle of Israel as a "state for the Jews". Palestinian officials were baffled when confronted with the issue, insisting that recognising Israel as a Jewish state does not imply any discrimination against Israel's large Palestinian minority.
While voicing their desire for a final, durable and just peace with Israel, PA leaders remain pessimistic about the prospects of reaching such an agreement any time soon.
"It is misleading to speak of gaps and points of differences between the Palestinian side and Israel. We don't have any agreement on basic issues, so it is inaccurate to speak of filling in gaps," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ureikat was quoted as saying.
Ureikat believes any genuine breakthrough in talks with Israel will require "massive American intervention", and that looks as far away as ever.
While Abbas and his aides insist that any peace agreement with Israel must include the creation of a Palestinian state on 100 per cent of the West Bank, Olmert is insisting that the guidelines for a declaration of principles must include George Bush's letter of guarantees to Sharon on 4 April, 2004 as well as the roadmap.
Bush pledged that in the context of a final-status peace agreement with the Palestinians Israel would have the right to retain major "Jewish population concentrations" in the West Bank, a clear reference to Jewish settlements built on occupied Arab land.
Palestinians and Arabs view the pledge, which is clearly incompatible with international law, as underscoring Washington's bias towards Israel. (see p.6 and Editorial p.12)