Flexibility versus escalation
Participating Arabs are walking into another trap in Annapolis, writes Nicola Nasser*
Israel doesn't need bombs to abort the Annapolis meeting. The incendiary rhetoric with which Israeli officials and media are arming Arab and Palestinian opponents to Annapolis should do the trick.
Take, for example, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's statement on Sunday that the future Palestinian state would provide a solution to the demands of Palestinians worldwide, including "Israeli Arabs", whose national demands would end the moment a Palestinian state is established. Livni's statement triggered a daily mounting protest movement among Palestinians in Israel who saw in her remarks signs of an impending official endorsement of Minister of Strategic Affairs Avegdor Lieberman's call for "transfer" -- the expulsion of 1.5 million Israeli Arabs under the guise of a "population swap" with the future Palestinian state.
If Livni not so subtly hinted at one Israeli aim that would be accomplished by the creation of a Palestinian state, the now comatose Ariel Sharon made no bones about another when he first announced his approval of the two-state solution. It would solve the problem of the Palestinian "right to return", which has long posed the greatest obstacle to a peace settlement. Palestinians would be able to "return" to the newly created Palestinian state.
The Palestinian refugee problem and the problem of the Arab minority in Israel have long constituted the occupying power's foremost strategic concerns. Together they form the "demographic" nightmare that stands in the way of the fulfilment of the Zionist movement's drive to create a purely Jewish state in Palestine. It is in this context that Israel launched another ploy to derail the Annapolis conference in the form of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statement insisting that there could be no such talks unless the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which recognised Israel's right to exist in 1993, now recognise Israel as "a Jewish state".
The statements by Livni, Olmert and, before them, Sharon, essentially form the contours of the Israeli project for a Palestinian state. Far from the Arab vision of a sovereign entity for Palestinian national expression, the Israeli version is a strategic vision for ridding the occupying power of two demographic burdens, a vehicle for absorbing Palestinian refugees abroad and Palestinians inside Israel who possess Israeli passports but are otherwise doomed to second-class citizenship. Israel sees in the Annapolis conference, which, whether by design or not, will coincide with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' partition resolution of 29 November 1948, an opportunity to strike two birds with one stone.
That, however, is the long shot. By setting demands that it knows no Arab, let alone Palestinian, could accept, it hopes to drive the Arabs to boycott Annapolis or to bring the talks to a standstill if they do take place. With the Arabs to blame, it will have publicly washed its hands of its commitment to Washington to help the conference succeed. It will have played along with the Bush administration's game in which the real goal of Annapolis is not success in substance but success in form, in exchange for the support of "moderate Arabs" for the US's floundering occupation of Iraq and for its plans of aggression against Iran and Syria, the two remaining obstacles to complete American hegemony over the Middle East.
Arab opponents to Annapolis have not only received ammunition from the provocative statements of Israeli extremists but also from the comments of Israelis whom Arab supporters of a political settlement with Israel class as Israeli "peace advocates" and "moderates". Yossi Beilin (the Israeli partner in the Geneva Initiative) is one. In Haaretz of 19 November, he cautions against going to Annapolis without both sides first having agreed on certain essential issues. Otherwise, he writes, the people in Annapolis will be left standing in the middle of the road exposed to extremists on both sides.
Palestinian negotiators see Annapolis as the avenue to turn the Palestinian "declaration of independence" from a dream to a reality. Clearly they are so blind to the attrition Israel is inflicting on this hope by the day that not even the failure of Annapolis would snap them out of their delusion. While the Palestinian negotiator is so intent on making the Annapolis conference succeed that he is demonstrating a flexibility that appears almost ready to compromise on fixed national principles, his Israeli counterpart is just as determinedly upping the stakes, to the extent of threatening to derail the conference before it begins, with the aim of wresting so many concessions out of the Palestinians that the conference would be meaningless. As Yossi Verter observed in Haaretz last Thursday, while Palestinians were on holiday commemorating the "declaration of independence", Israel has turned Annapolis into such a PR campaign that it is "killing" the meeting in advance.
There was a striking contradiction between a headline and the text below it in a Palestinian news agency article published in English on 15 November. The headline quoted President Mahmoud Abbas as saying, "Only a peace based on justice will bring peace to Palestine and Israel." In the body of the article, the quote was rendered as, "Only a peace based on injustice ..." An inadvertent typo, perhaps, but pithy nevertheless. It sums up perfectly the state of confusion in which the Palestinian negotiator is mired, caught as he is in a no-man's land between "optimism" and "pessimism" and between hope and delusion. Fortunately, such confusion has not been transmitted to the Palestinian people who have learned through the cauldron of experience how to discriminate between realistic national aspirations and political pragmatism steeped in self-deception.
President Abbas, himself, epitomises the pitiful disorientation of Palestinian officialdom. On Friday, he confided in Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz his doubts about the chances of success at Annapolis. Only four day earlier, while in Ankara, he hailed the forthcoming Annapolis meeting as a "historic opportunity", parroting Israeli President Shimon Peres and others who are pinning hopes for the meeting's success on upbeat rhetoric. Interestingly, in this regard, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown struck a somewhat discordant note when he referred to the meeting as a "unique opportunity". But King Abdullah II was undoubtedly closer to the truth when he described it as "a last chance."
Whether this "opportunity" is "historic", "unique" or "final", observers cannot fail to notice all the steps Israel is taking to nip it in the bud. In the face of the tactical and strategic concessions Palestinian negotiators are making in order to pave the way for success at Annapolis, Israel has escalated tactically, through its ongoing assassinations and assaults; strategically, through its undisguised preparations to mount a full-scale incursion into Gaza in the wake of the conference; and politically by upping its demands on Palestinians in advance of the conference, the most salient being Palestinian recognition of the Jewish character of Israel as a precondition for talks. The most recent is the Knesset's ratification of an amendment to the law regarding the status of Jerusalem. Whereas the old law required a majority of 61 votes to alter the status of the Holy City, under the new one a majority of 80 will be needed.
The Israeli drive to kill Annapolis or void of it any substance will not stop short of blackmail, as was the case last month when the American Zionist lobby drummed up a campaign calling upon Fatah, headed by Abbas, to amend certain passages of its charter, effectively defunct for 30 years, as a precondition for Israel to go to Annapolis. But Israel's arm-twisting techniques assume their crudest and most hypocritical from in its treatment of its Palestinian "peace partner." For example, last Friday's Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli military establishment had urged Olmert not to offer any "good faith initiatives" to the Palestinians in advance of Annapolis. Such "initiatives" would have been nothing less than taking steps to meet Israel's obligations under the first phase of the roadmap, such as freezing settlement construction, releasing Palestinian detainees and easing restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians and goods. At the same time, the Israelis insisted that the Palestinian side had to implement its obligations under the roadmap before going to Annapolis, which, in fact, it is doing in coordination with the occupation security apparatus.
The Palestinian people looked on with a mixture of anger and pain as the third annual commemoration of the death of Yasser Arafat turned into an occasion to deepen the national divide. Instead of further internecine violence, the commemoration should have afforded an opportunity to unite ranks around the direct cause for the siege on Arafat's compound that ultimately drove him to his death: the negotiating chicanery of the Camp David summit. Instead of learning from that mistake, Palestinian negotiators are determined to let themselves get stung a second time by plunging headlong into another US-Israeli negotiating trap in Annapolis. The only sense that can be made of the flare-up in internal Palestinian tensions is that it was fuelled precisely in order to divert the public's attention from the impending fiasco into which the Palestinian negotiators are being lured, or are letting themselves be lured.
That there was no rift in Palestinian ranks seven years ago did not spare Arafat from the Israel-US trap in Camp David. Given the deep rift that now exists, the Palestinian leadership will most likely bring upon themselves and the entire Palestinian cause even more dire consequences if they insist on stepping into the latest trap that is being laid for them in Annapolis. Surely this leadership must be acute to the dangers in view of its considerable experience with the way Israel exploits Palestinian divisions in order to accuse the Palestinian leadership of weakness and then charge it with failure to fulfil its obligations, a tactic that Israel is certain to bring into play again after Annapolis in order to wriggle out of whatever commitments it might have made there.
In the summer of 2000, Arafat yielded to enormous pressure from the US, Europe, Arab governments and a contingent of Palestinians for whom negotiating with Israel had become an addiction and set off for Camp David in order to discuss final status issues. He went to Camp David before Israel had fulfilled its obligations under the interim Oslo Accords, in accordance with which Israel should have completed the redeployment of its forces from the West Bank by July 1999. Camp David was Israel's way of evading these obligations and casting the blame on Arafat.
Palestinian negotiators, today, are about to commit exactly the same mistake. They have agreed to go to another international conference before Israel has fulfilled its commitments, one of these being its pledge to withdraw its occupation forces to their pre-28 September 2000 positions. Sadly, this oft-repeated Palestinian demand has gone the way of other demands Palestinian negotiators had once insisted needed to be met before agreeing to go to Annapolis, such as the timeframe for follow up of six months, the detailed memorandum of understanding, the provision of international guarantees and mechanisms for the conference, all of which have fallen by the wayside in the negotiators' eagerness to attend a conference whose aims and mechanisms appear so suspect that Palestinians from across the political spectrum have cautioned against it.
The prickly trees of the peace process into which the US-Israeli alliance led the Arabs and Palestinians have blinded many of them to the nature of that dark forest whose layout is defined by a balance of international and regional powers skewed heavily in favour of that alliance. This process did not even begin until after Israel's overwhelming military and strategic superiority was guaranteed, until a major Arab power (Egypt) was removed from the equation, another Arab power (Iraq) decimated and a third Arab power (Syria) isolated, and until other Arab countries were either too preoccupied with internal problems (such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria), neutralised through other means (Jordan, Mauritania and Kuwait), or so cowed by the ogres of "international terrorism" and Iran (the Gulf countries) that they threw in their lot with that alliance.
The more important generally overlooked truth is that the US and Israel, whose main foreign policy tool is recourse or threat of recourse to violence, are incapable of using peaceful political and diplomatic means to solve their international or regional conflicts. War-makers can only hammer together peace on the basis of their conquests through war. The invader and occupier of Iraq cannot end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Even without its occupation of Iraq, its 60-year long record of military, financial and political support of the Israeli occupation has lost it any shred of credibility as an impartial peace broker.
These fundamental truths that Arab officials who have opted for peace with Israel as "a strategic option" have concealed from their publics are, at least, clear to the members of an American grassroots anti-war movement that has organised a demonstration to coincide with the "phony peace conference" in Annapolis. "It is a monumental insult to the people of the Middle East and all justice- minded people that war criminal Bush would dare to convene a 'peace meeting' while Washington continues to bring occupation, genocide and devastation to Iraq and Afghanistan, destabilisation to Palestine and Lebanon, and constant threats to Iran and Syria in its quest for oil and colonial empire," reads the statement issued by the organisers of the rally. This meeting is not about peace and justice for the Palestinians, the statement continues. "It's about attempting to force new concessions on the Palestinian people, while attempting to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments with Israel, even as Tel Aviv continues its all- out assault on the Palestinian people. And it's about preparing for a new war."
* The writer is a Palestinian researcher.