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Latest Israeli-Palestinian Summit in Annapolis Stirs Hope, Skepticism
The Washington Diplomat / November 2007

By Larry Luxner

Oslo. Camp David. Madrid. Shepherdstown. Taba. Wye River. Geneva. Sharm el-Sheikh. All these places, big and small, have been a party to the long and often thankless business of Middle East peacemaking.

Later this month, Annapolis Maryland's quaint capital city will join the list when the U.S. Naval Academy hosts a multilateral summit. The event, whose exact dates haven't yet been announced, represents Washington's latest attempt to bring lasting peace between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors.

Nobody knows whether Annapolis will be remembered by history as a stunning success or a dismal failure. But the very fact that it's taking place at all is seen by some as a victory for peace, says veteran Israeli political columnist Naomi Chazan.

"The upcoming Annapolis conference is unleashing a spate of emotions, ranging from euphoria, enthusiasm, wariness and aversion to downright paranoia," Chazan wrote recently in the Jerusalem Post."Those who want to see it happen fear its failure; those who oppose it dread that it will take place. And skeptics, steeped in the lessons of past experience, doubt its utility."

At best, says Chazan, the Annapolis conference can provide a launching pad and guidelines for "a complete and expeditious permanent Israeli-Palestinian accord."

However, many are playing down expectations for the summit including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who speculated that the summit might not even take place at all. Speaking to a group of Jewish fundraisers in late October, he said he was committed to the summit but warned that the gathering would not result in a binding peace agreement. "If all goes well, hopefully we will meet in Annapolis," he said. "[But] Annapolis is not made to be the event for the declaration of peace."

Among those who clearly don't want Annapolis to succeed is Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On Oct. 22, Ahmadinejad who wasn't invited to the event called the conference on Palestinian statehood a "trap set by the Zionists," and that Israel itself is on the verge of collapse. Another doubter is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who also wasn't invited and probably wouldn't attend even if he did get an invitation.

"Our position is very clear," said Ahmed Salkini, press secretary at the Syrian Embassy in Washington. "Syria is an integral part of the peace process and we have our own issues. If the Golan Heights are not on the agenda, there's no reason for us to be there. We cannot be in Annapolis just as observers when we have our own grievances and territories that are occupied by Israel. It's as simple as that."

Skeptics abound on the Israeli side as well.

Avi Lipkin, an author, journalist and former top official in Israel's Government Press Office, predicted that the Annapolis summit would fail "because of the intransigence of the Palestinians and the Muslims" regarding Israeli land concessions that would be impossible to fulfill.

"If [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert agrees to these conditions, including handing over Judaism's holiest site the Western Wall his government will fall in a no-confidence vote leading to new elections in Israel," said Lipkin. "The Shas and Israel Beitenu parties will bolt the coalition, leaving Olmert with a minority in the Knesset."

Ely Karmon, senior research scholar at Israel's Counterterrorism Institute in Herzliyya, doubts much good can come out of Annapolis because the Palestinians themselves are in internal turmoil.

"The real picture concerning the views inside the movement which controls the West Bank and pretends to represent all the Palestinian people is important before the conference will engage in negotiations which could decide the future Israel-Palestinian Authority relations and the chances for advancing the difficult peace process," he said.

Karmon, who recently lectured on Capitol Hill about the dangers of radical Islam and Hezbollah, said that unfortunately, Mahmoud Abbas has not succeeded in uniting his Fatah movement, which he says is split between the "old guard" and the "new guard."

"The first is led by Abbas and other 'founding fathers' of the national movement, who lived most of their lives in exile, and the second by Marwan Barghouti, who currently is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison," Karmon explained. "The young guard considers the old guard corrupt and inept, and blames it for Fatah's defeat in the elections.

"It wants Abbas to play the role of a transitional leader and to help transfer power in the party to it. The old guard, however, has little or no respect for the ability of the young guard to lead the party."

Karmon added that "important segments of Fatah still stick to radical views and old strategies, and are not interested in advancing the peace process with Israel."

Afif Safieh, the PLO's ambassador to the United States, says that's nonsense.

"We are not in favor of peace now. We are in favor of peace the day before yesterday," says Safieh, truly a master of the soundbite.

"We want this conference in Annapolis to be a major breakthrough. I believe the Bush administration would also like it to be a significant and substantive conference that will constitute a turning point in a peace process that has become ridiculous," he told the Diplomat."We will be fully mobilized in the coming days and weeks to make Annapolis a success."

Safieh pointed out that "neither the date nor the list of guests has been announced, so it's premature to say who's coming and who isn't." But he did say that he expects something concrete to come out of the conference.

"We, like the administration, are not interested in a photo op gathering," he said. "In the process that started in Madrid, final-status issues were left for later on, according to some, very unwisely. Today, it's long overdue that we address these important issues: Jerusalem, the settlements, the refugees, water resources and final boundaries."

Several weeks ago, during a visit to Indonesia, Abbas predicted that the Arab-Israeli conflict would be solved before the end of 2008. He also said it was crucial to reconcile with Hamas, and that no agreed-upon peace with Israel without the support of Hamas.

In the meantime, many Israelis argue that Ariel Sharon's biggest mistake was his unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which was captured from Egypt in 1967. Gaza, a crowded, miserable place that's home to 1.4 million Palestinians, is controlled by Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), while the much larger and more prosperous West Bank is controlled by Fatah.

The scene of bloody fighting between Hamas and Fatah a few months ago, Gaza is also a hotbed of Islamic nationalism. Since Israel's exit from Gaza in September 2005, Palestinian militants have fired hundreds of Qassam missiles at Israeli civilian targets, terrorizing people in the towns of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Shderot.

The situation got much worse in June 2007, when the Gaza Strip was completely overtaken by Hamas, resulting in a de facto government which insists it is the legitimate government of the Palestinian Authority.

Safieh declined to talk much about the relationship between Fatah and Hamas.

"We will explore this post-Annapolis," he said, stating only that "Hamas, through its coup d'etat, won Gaza but lost the Palestinian people. All the public-opinion polls show a dip in their popularity since their military takeover of Gaza."

None of this, he says, should have any effect on peace talks with Israel.

"All the final-status issues Jerusalem, the settlements, Israel's final boundaries happen to be in the West Bank. So nobody should invoke the sad situation of Gaza as a reason for further delay."

Lately, some top Israeli lawmakers in the Olmert government have suggested that Israel might be willing to give up jurisdiction of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem under a comprehensive settlement. But to many Jews especially religious ones the idea of handing even one centimeter of the holy city to the Palestinians is blasphemy.

"Unfortunately, the Israelis want peace, but they also want to keep as much of the territories as they can," said Safieh. "I have always told them that perpetuation of the conflict is not due to Arab rejection of Israel's existence, but to Israeli rejection of Arab acceptance."

Annapolis or not, can the Arabs and Jews ever really accept each other?

Safieh says they have no choice.

"Both sides might prefer to have the Norwegians as their neighbors," he joked. "Until now, we've been in a situation of unavoidable co-existence, and it's been extremely unhappy. We must learn how to live side by side as we move from dependence, to independence, to interdependence."

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