Khody Akhavi
Inter Press Service (IPS)
October 4, 2007 - 2:47pm

As the George W. Bush administration prepares to host its much-publicised Middle East conference, Israeli experts gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss whether Washington's latest diplomatic attempts would pave the way for a solution to the long-moribund Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

But with less than two months before the November meeting, which is to be held in Annapolis, the sentiment was anything but hopeful.

"I look at the November meeting with great trepidation," said Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and legal counsel for Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation concerned with the future of Jerusalem.

"If everything goes right, it might not be enough. We're living at the edge of volcano," he said.

President Bush's recent demands for a "viable Palestinian state" mark the first time since the Camp David Summit in 2000 that the Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leadership have gathered to discuss final status issues -- the fate of Palestinian refugees; the status of Jerusalem; the borders of a Palestinian state; and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The 2000 meetings, which took place between then U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, were ultimately unsuccessful.

Since then, the political terrain of the Middle East has changed dramatically for the worse. Division of the Palestinian territories appears to be hardening, with Washington supporting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and shunning Islamist Hamas.

Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2005 only to be isolated by the West, violently seized control of Gaza in June and has been locked in a power struggle with Abbas's Fatah group, which controls the West Bank.

Hamas remains isolated in Gaza, where the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.

"The situation in Gaza is as bad as Burma. People are dying every day," said Akiva Eldar, the chief political columnist for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. He added that if Abbas could not move the process forward, what happened in Gaza could possibly occur in the West Bank.

"Abu Mazen [Abbas] is a lame duck," said Eldar. "In the best case, he is walking on one leg. If he can't produce a credible document for Palestinians, he'll lose both legs."

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, Abbas reiterated his government's position that the key to solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was directly addressing the "final status" issues.

But the rhetoric of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggests that Washington has thus far opted for more ambiguous goals.

In a press conference with the Fatah leader in Ramallah two weeks ago, Rice discussed finding "a common set of principles" toward a "political horizon", to "support and advance the negotiations" along the "bilateral track".

"What we lack in the process is U.S. guarantees," said Eldar. "The U.S. is entering the process with double hats, one as an honest broker, the other as a superpower whose politicians remain committed to the 'Israeli qualitative edge.' There is no balance... we are weeks away from a deadline, and we see no U.S. input."

While President Bush has been noticeably absent from the process, Rice plans to visit the Middle East again next week as part of her shuttle diplomacy tour in anticipation of the conference.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that there had been "encouraging statements" from the proposed participants, including the Israelis and Palestinians whose leaders have asked their aides to begin drafting a joint declaration ahead of the conference.

The prospective invitees include officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the Quartet -- Russia, the United States, the European Union and the U.N.

"The hard work has already begun, the really hard work is about to begin," he told reporters.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert still remain far apart on how detailed the declaration should be. Abbas and other meeting participants, including Saudi Arabia, favour a more detailed framework, while Olmert, who has previously stopped short of saying the conference would restart final-status issues, has balked at any specific timeframes.

"Incrementalism has been abused since Oslo," said Seidemann, referring to the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, the first face-to-face agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. "Olmert will pull in the direction of something watery."

Seidemann said that while a detailed framework would be unnecessary and a timetable impossible based on Israel's position, Olmert could take immediate steps to indicate Israeli willingness to achieve peace by coordinating with Abbas on Jerusalem affairs.

"The Orient House has to be reopened, and Abbas must be empowered to receive foreign dignitaries," said Seidemann, referring to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's headquarters in East Jerusalem during the 1980s and 1990s.

"It will signify to Israelis and Palestinians a change in the rules of the game," he said, with the goal being "Jerusalem as a shared city politically divided."

"The polls indicate that the [Israeli] public is way out ahead of the political leadership," he said. The idea, he added, "will go through butter like a hot knife."


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