Bush's peace meeting is nothing but an empty orgy of rhetoric, writes Azmi Bishara
Bush's brilliant brainstorm to hold a meaningless, lustreless peace conference is like dry lightning, which brings not the prayed for rain. The US administration needed something to prove that its policy towards the Arab region was not a drastic failure. It came up with nothing better than to restage the Madrid peace conference that was engineered by James Baker, secretary of state under Bush's father. For some reason, Republicans regard the Bush Sr-Baker policy following the war in Kuwait a success story worthy of commemoration and emulation. So we have a conference, today, that has brought the Arabs to Washington, flushed with gratitude to the imperial grace for bestowing its attention again upon the Palestinian cause.
Over the years, Arab officialdom and its entourage has adopted such terms and concepts as "the peace process," "the process," "the priority [high or low] that the US administration has accorded to the Palestinian cause," "giving impetus to diplomatic efforts," and even "the Bush vision". What all these terms and concepts have in common is that they are disseminated as positive values, in their own right, for their purported ability to inspire hope and budge stagnant waters. Another common virtue is their ability to sideline substance and to promote the veneration of form (the "process" and "priority on the agenda"). They also presume the public's recurrent and total amnesia with respect to the very history of these terms, which their proponents never tire of repeating. As for people who venture to ask "But why?" and "To what end?" they are scoffed at as naïve and babbling children.
True, international conferences are historic events. But as Karl Marx observed with respect to Napoleon III, some historical events are repeated twice, once as tragedy and the second time as farce. Madrid set the scene for the formulation of negotiating tracks and the tragedy of Oslo, to which the Palestinian cause is still held hostage. With Annapolis, the curtains opened to farce. At first people thought that it was to be a conference, only to learn that it was to be an assembly. Then it was billed as a "meeting" and, finally, as an inauguration of a peace process, which is to say a negotiating process. But Madrid, too, turned out to be the inauguration of a negotiating process. How many negotiating process inaugurations can there be? How many times must pompous speeches, embellished with quotes from the Torah, inlaid with Quranic verses, bespangled with references to "our common father Abraham" and to the step- siblings Isaac and Ishmael, be delivered to specially prepared over air-conditioned halls crammed with delegations and journalists, all anticipating nothing, dying of boredom and passing their time pondering how they're going to recast the dullest, most innocuous ramblings into speeches that were "profound," "cohesive," "eloquent" or otherwise? What have the Arabs done from Madrid to the present day? They've negotiated. Why do we need another rhetoric orgy to introduce more of the same? Your guess is as good as mine. Of course, some say, or maintain (for those who think that the subject requires a soberer tongue that is not pressed into the cheek), that this time negotiations will be serious about creating a Palestinian state, that we are inaugurating a serious phase in the negotiations, that what we'll be seeing in the next eight months will make all the negotiations that have taken place up to now look like child's play. At least so the Palestinian negotiators promise themselves, even as Olmert counters this promise with the promise that he will not be bound to any timetable or deadline for concluding negotiations over a permanent solution.
The Palestinians and Israelis have reached no understanding with regard to the status of Jerusalem, borders or dismantling Israeli settlements. On the Palestinian right to return, on the other hand, they've made no small amount of headway -- towards the Palestinian and Arab official abnegation of the exercise of that right. This was done by turning a non-subject -- the Jewishness of the state of Israel -- into a negotiating issue on par with all the others, such as Jerusalem, the refugees, borders and settlements.
There is also a quasi consensus over Bush's "vision". Essentially the same as the earlier "Sharon vision", it is a formula for bartering away all once "non-negotiable" Palestinian rights in exchange for a Palestinian political entity to be governed after an age or two by a Palestinian elite after it does its part of fighting "terrorism". That political entity, to be termed a state, will not be territorially defined by pre-June 1967 boundaries. Its creation will not be accompanied by the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and by the dismantlement of major Israeli settlements. It will not exercise sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem although it may possibly be able to extend citizenship to Arabs in Jerusalem who may possibly be able to retain their residence there. There may also possibly be some provision for easy access to key holy sites. It is a rosy dream for those who dream of ruling a state, a nightmare for anyone who still clings to the justice of the Palestinian cause.
In all events, before this dream comes to pass, negotiators will have to gather and hammer it together. But first, America needs some fanfare: a Bush-Rice-Blair-Republican Party fete to celebrate their stunning success, at last, in getting a peace conference off the ground, while the Palestinians in Gaza, the Lebanese and the Iraqis are living a very real nightmare.
But the Annapolis meeting was not just borne of American yearning for a PR coup but also of the need to cater to the position of Arab moderates. These have toed the American line on all issues and on every occasion and have not once quibbled with Washington since the neo- conservatives stopped meddling in their domestic affairs. Now is the time for the US to reward them by offering something on the "peace process". But once again, they are going to Washington instead of making Washington come to them. Olmert offered no good-faith initiatives and he was supported in this by Israeli public opinion, the majority of which refuses to discuss final status issues, even if a 65 to 75 per cent majority supported Israeli attendance at Annapolis and negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians. Washington made no attempt to call Olmert on his lack of cooperativeness and eventually it became very awkward for "moderate" Arabs to even consider attending a conference that was supposedly being held, in part, to help them. Sure, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president could be heard, in Cairo, talking about the historic opportunity that should not be missed. But everyone knows that he is hostage to the negotiating process and to Israeli handouts, and that he would rather flee forward further into Israeli clutches than entertain the idea of returning to a Palestinian national unity government.
The foregoing leads to what had been accomplished in advance of the conference. This conference was built upon internal Palestinian discord and strife. Before the Fatah-Hamas rift, there was a freeze in the so-called peace process and Israel told the PA and its president that they had to stop even speaking with Hamas in order for Israel to agree to so much as talk with them. Israel has an inexhaustible font of conditions, not just for reaching an agreement with the PA but merely to deign to speak with it. The latest was that the PA had to cease any form of cooperation and parleying with Hamas, which is to say with the representatives of a huge portion of the Palestinian people.
This was the first accomplishment. And so well did the PA perform it that it received hundreds of pats on the back for its resolute stance against Hamas, the whole world summoned to Annapolis to bear false witness to negotiations that haven't begun and that offer no guarantees for success if and when they do. All this display just to bolster (or "empower" in political science jargon) the position of Palestinian moderates who must be so proud of themselves for having seized the "historic opportunity" that they can already hear the wings of history fluttering over Annapolis. How important a person can feel when he accepts Israeli conditions! How good the US and Israel (and Europe, which just wants to get it all over with) are at making the people they want feel important!
The second accomplishment is on the tip of everyone's tongue. Israel had announced on several occasions and through various spokespersons that the condition for talking with the Palestinians had been met. Now, for talks to make any progress, the Palestinians had to honour their commitments under the roadmap, which were to fight "terrorism" and dismantle the "terrorist infrastructure". By this Israel meant crushing the Palestinian resistance, beginning in the West Bank. This commitment under the roadmap had always been a bone of contention between Israel and Arafat, in large part because the Israeli style is to force the Palestinians to prove themselves and then tell them, "Let's wait and see." But Israel succeeded in prevailing upon the post-Arafat PA to accept this condition.
With these accomplishments harvested by Israel even before negotiations began, the Palestinian negotiator is weaker than ever. He's even weak in the eyes of Israeli public opinion as a consequence of the Palestinian rift and as a consequence of how dependent the PA leadership has become on Israel's good faith and the success of negotiations. When the Palestinians were more or less united, Israel required an internal Palestinian rift in order to talk. After the rift it claimed that the PA was too weak to control its field and could not be taken seriously enough to merit concessions of good faith.
But there was a third accomplishment: Arab disengagement from the Palestinian cause. The Arabs can see how weak the PA is and in whose hands the PA's decision-making powers reside. They share its weakness and so can understand it very well, which is why they grasp at any "pragmatic" solution that this weakness has made possible. They are not about to be "more Palestinian than the Palestinians," which is to say the Palestinian negotiator. True, they take advantage of every rut and bump in the negotiating process to proclaim how steadfast is the Palestinian side, and how it will not cave in easily. But ultimately, whether or not it came to them easily and whether or not they suffered pangs of conscience, they agreed to sell the cause down the river.
That this is the foundation that has been set for the Annapolis meeting is not to say that merely to sit around the table is to tacitly normalise relations with Israel. All the delegations that reported to Annapolis had attended Madrid in the past. Their participation did not necessarily lead to normalisation. It led to separate negotiating tracks, some of which have stalled. The only party that signed a peace agreement with Israel since Madrid was Jordan. The only party to have normalised its relations with Israel without a peace agreement was the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Apparently Syria decided to take part in Annapolis for fear that it would be left totally isolated in the Arab world if it did not. That it chose to participate offers no guarantee that the Golan Heights will be restored to it, even if that issue was listed on the Annapolis agenda. It had to be affixed to the agenda, because otherwise Syria could not accept to go. In the not so distant past, it would have taken only a quick assessment of how detrimental this inaugural ceremony will be to the Palestinian cause for Damascus to decide not to attend, whether Golan was mentioned on the agenda or not.