Ordinary Palestinians have no reason to treat the upcoming Annapolis conference as anything but theatre, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
Despite her high-pitched pronouncements about George Bush's commitment to "ending the Palestinian problem", US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice achieved very little -- if anything -- in her latest visit to the Middle East.
Rice, who on 14 October arrived in Israel from Russia where she urged President Vladimir Putin to support American efforts to isolate Iran, sought to lower expectations of her visit.
"I don't expect that there will be any particular outcome in the sense of a breakthrough on the document," she said, referring to efforts by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to reach a draft of a joint document outlining the general features of a prospective final-status solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I would just warn in advance not to expect that, because this is really work in progress," she added.
While the "work" may be "in progress", there has been little to no interim tangible results, indicating that the Bush administration, particularly Rice, may be seriously underestimating the complexity of the problems impeding a Palestinian- Israeli agreement.
Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who told her, "I would very much like to see a joint declaration at the summit, but the declaration is not a condition, and never was a condition, for holding this conference in November."
Olmert also resorted to another notorious Israeli tactic, asking Rice to stop pressuring Israel given the "stiff opposition" he said he was facing from within his government as well as from the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
To highlight his point, Olmert arranged meetings between Rice and two of his most extremist cabinet ministers, Avigdor Lieberman, the gung-ho minister of strategic affairs, and Eli Yeshai, who represents the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party.
Lieberman reportedly warned Rice that the Olmert government would collapse if "core" final-status issues such as Jerusalem and the refugees were discussed in the Annapolis conference. This is the same man who last week told visiting Quartet envoy Tony Blair that any peace agreement between Israel and the PA would have to include a "solution" for Israel's Arab citizens.
Lieberman explained to Rice that, "priority should be given to healing the Palestinian economy." Coming from a man who only a few weeks ago was urging the Israeli army to strangle Palestinian population centres and sever food, water and electricity supplies to the estimated 1.5 millions residents of Gaza, the statement was curious at best. Rice thanked him for his "valuable ideas".
Yeshai made a similar allusion to the Palestinian economy and also to "Palestinian political divisions", ignoring the fact that Israel has done everything it could to destroy the Palestinian economy and stoke the flames of strife between Fatah and Hamas.
Rice, reluctant or probably unable to confront the icons of Israeli extremism, said there was no point in holding the Annapolis conference without discussing final-status issues. She reiterated this point more forcefully in Ramallah where she urged PA President Mahmoud Abbas "to make every possible effort to ensure the success" of the Annapolis conference.
"We frankly have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op," she told reporters, adding that, "Palestinians and Israelis are making their most serious efforts in years to resolve the conflict. Frankly, it's time for the establishment of a Palestinian state."
During her brief visit to Ramallah, Rice was urged by Abbas to see to it that there be a "timetable" for the implementation of any final-status agreement with Israel. Israel vehemently rejects the idea, arguing that any agreement reached would require confidence-building measures, which would take time. The Americans are surely well acquainted with Israel's prevarications but refuse to impose anything on Israel, especially in light of the proximity of the American presidential elections.
In addition to the timetable issue, Abbas told Rice that unless there was a general understanding on core issues, including Jerusalem, the refugees and borders, the upcoming conference would be a failure.
Meanwhile, Palestinian officials have accused Israel of seeking to abort the peace conference but without appearing to be responsible for its failure. Ahmed Qurei, former prime minister who has been appointed chief Palestinian negotiator, this week warned that unless the upcoming peace conference yielded results, a third Intifada would be in the offing.
Similarly, Palestinian Information and Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki, remarked that, "without a document to resolve this conflict, we can't go to the conference next month." He added: "Olmert is looking for a public relations conference and one that will allow normalisation with Arab countries. We will not help him in this."
It is not only the words of Israeli leaders that make Palestinians sceptical of Israeli intentions. Israel has been working hard to undermine any atmosphere conducive to a successful conference. Israel's occupation army continues to invade Palestinian towns, nearly on a daily basis, inflicting death and havoc on innocent civilians.
On Monday, the Israeli army killed a 70-year-old man and a young Fatah activist in downtown Nablus. The killings, say local observers, give the impression that Israel doesn't have the slightest regard for Abbas and his government. At best such incidents lend the impression that Israel views Abbas more a quisling than an equal partner.
More to the point, Israel has been threatening to launch a wide-ranging incursion into Gaza that could result in the murder of numerous Palestinians. Such an incursion, if carried out before the November conference, would surely tarnish the image of Abbas as he is seen fraternising with Israeli leaders in Annapolis. From Israel's unconscionable strategic point of view, this would leave Abbas weaker than he is already in negotiations.
Considering the grim reality on the ground, and the oft-optimistic statements by some PA officials portending the final and imminent arrival of peace, some Palestinian intellectuals have castigated the Ramallah-based leadership, calling it "naïve, stupid and irresponsible".
Ali Jerbawi, a prominent Palestinian academic and professor of international relations at Birzeit University, called PA optimism about American and Israeli intentions "mendacious and misplaced". "Those who think that the American-Israeli stances have changed are infinitely naïve," he said.
Jerbawi accused the PA leadership of trying to compensate for the imbalance with Israel, first with superficial formalities and high-profile meetings and encounters, and, second, with creating false hopes and high expectations of the present process.
"The Palestinians are in their worst situation ever. There is a geographical-political division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, poverty is rife and economic collapse is everywhere, and Israeli efforts to obliterate Palestinian presence in Jerusalem continue unabated while Arab support for the Palestinian cause is at an all-time low."
Jerbawi asks: "when will we stop running after the mirage, thinking it is water?"