Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 November 2007
Issue No. 870
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Short on substance

After months of talks, and ahead of Annapolis, not a single key issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been agreed upon, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's latest visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories was rich in rhetoric but woefully short on substance. Rice, who arrived in Jerusalem Sunday, is engaged in final preparations for the upcoming peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, due to be held in the last week of November.

Due to a dearth of progress in Palestinian-Israeli talks aimed at formulating a common vision of a final status settlement between the two sides, Rice felt compelled to switch discourse from "brokering peace", of which she has done very little anyway, to the role of preaching about the virtues of peace, which, too, is unlikely to yield fruit.

In West Jerusalem, Rice urged Israeli leaders to "be bold" in pursuing peace with the Palestinians. She told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, "it is time for us all to make difficult decisions for the sake of peace. All Israelis should be confident that America is fully behind you, that we are fully committed to your security and you can thus be bold in your pursuit of peace."

Rice's remarks suggested that she believed that Israel's reluctance to reach peace with the Palestinians had to do with a certain feeling of insecurity on the Israeli side, not with a near religious insistence on establishing "Greater Israel". Israeli leaders, meanwhile, seem to have reverted to old, stale arguments, used mainly as red herrings to justify Israeli intransigence on ending the occupation of Arab land seized in 1967.

Responding to Rice's remarks, Olmert sounded evasive, as if he was seeking a pretext to justify Israel's obstructionism. He told the US secretary of state that there could be no deal on a Palestinian state until Israeli security was assured and until the Palestinian Authority (PA) fought terror and dismantled its infrastructure. Needless to say, this is the same old mantra that Israeli leaders from Yitzhak Shamir to Ariel Sharon had used as a diversionary tactic to keep the occupation going.

Earlier, Olmert told a number of his far right wing cabinet ministers, who had threatened to bring the government down if the Annapolis conference discussed the core issues of the conflict with the Palestinians, that the American-sponsored conference wouldn't be a "peace conference" but rather the beginning of a long and arduous process.

No one is impressed on the Palestinian side. PA official and former chief negotiator Saeb Ereikat told reporters in Ramallah that the Annapolis conference would be a watershed and that failure could be catastrophic for all concerned. Ereikat pointed out that the Palestinians would like to reach a final settlement with Israel before the end of President Bush's term of office.

"I think that everyone wants to do the agreement during President Bush's tenure," said Ereikat, adding that "the specifics" would be worked out during the Annapolis conference. However, according to Palestinian journalist Awadh Rajoub, these "specifics" constitute the real problems.

"Peace for the Palestinians means total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and a just solution to the refugee problem pursuant UN Resolution 194. Peace for Israel, however, means retaining major Jewish settlements in the West Bank, especially in East Jerusalem, an effective liquidation of the refugee problem, and total and unconditional normalisation with the Arab world," Rajoub said.

This analysis is backed by the failure of both sides to make genuine progress towards reaching general outlines on a prospective final status settlement. Indeed, despite the passage of several months of intensive meetings between Abbas and Olmert, there is yet no agreement on any of the important issues defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During his press conference with Rice in Ramallah on Monday, however, PA President Mahmoud Abbas tried to sound upbeat. He said he had received "encouraging signs" from the US with regard to the Annapolis meeting, a reference to American assurances that all key issues of the conflict would be dealt with in envisaged post-Annapolis talks.

Abbas added that he agreed with Olmert that there was a real possibility to achieve peace. "And I say, we are serious to use this opportunity to reach this historic peace."

Responding to Abbas's remarks, Rice said she hoped that a peace deal could be reached within the time remaining for the Bush administration. She added that she was tremendously impressed by the seriousness Israeli and Palestinian leaders have shown in moving towards renewed peace talks. "I am confident that the will is there on both sides; that people want to end this conflict," she said.

It is unlikely, though, that the repetition of these platitudes and pleasantries by Rice will impress the Palestinians who have bitter experience with promises and pledges made by the Bush administration.

During his first term, Bush promised that the end of 2005 would see a Palestinian state established. Instead of fulfilling that pledge, Bush promised then Israeli prime minister Sharon that Israel could annex major Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the context of any final status settlement. For the Palestinians, the moral is clear: Don't trust the Bush administration.

To compensate for their failure to reach agreement on the core issues --Jerusalem, the refugees and withdrawal from the occupied territories -- Israel and the PA have agreed to start implementing the American-backed roadmap.

The first step of the three-stage roadmap stipulates that Israel will freeze settlement construction in the West Bank, dismantle "illegal" settlements (whatever that means, because under international law all of them are illegal), ease restrictions on Palestinian movement and withdraw occupation forces from Palestinian population centres. In return, the PA is charged to disarm "terrorist groups", round up illegal weapons and reform its security services.

It would seem simple, yet Israel and the PA interpret the roadmap almost diametrically. According to former PA minister Ghassan Khatib, both sides, particularly Israel, are insincere about implementing the roadmap. "Israel has no plans to dismantle illegal settlements and freeze settlement expansion. The reason they invoke the roadmap is because they are using it as pressure tactic, and a sort of alibi, to justify their reluctance to pursue a genuine peace process that would end the occupation that began in 1967."

Khatib told Al-Ahram Weekly that the PA realised that even exemplary security performance on its part wouldn't be good enough for Israel. "Besides, how could you ensure security and dismantle what the Israelis calls the 'infrastructure of terror' when you are not in control?"

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