Ghassan Khatib
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
October 12, 2007 - 2:16pm

As the Annapolis meeting approaches, Palestinians grow less enthusiastic over its prospects. One can think of a number of good reasons for this pessimism, primary among them the bitter experience Palestinians have had with such summits in the past, especially when sponsored by the US. The last such meeting, lest we forget, was the Camp David summit in 2000.

Another good reason is the complete disconnect between the political discussions over and preparations for this meeting and the increasingly difficult situation in which Palestinians live. The latest report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicates that there are greater and greater Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank, while Israeli organizations are documenting an increase in settlement activity. With such a reality, the public is bound to be skeptical, and the Palestinian opposition is seizing on this skepticism to organize a summit of its own in Damascus, where those who have reservations vis-a-vis the Annapolis meeting will have their voices heard.

On the official level, however, the Palestinian leadership seems both excited and optimistic. President Mahmoud Abbas has assembled a negotiating team full of the familiar faces of those that belonged to the inner political circle of the late president Yasser Arafat since the beginning of the Oslo process and, which in addition to Abbas himself, included Ahmed Qureia and Yasser Abed Rabbo. This core team, however, is also not reassuring to the public. On the contrary, among both ordinary Palestinians and a large part of the political and intellectual elite, the makeup of the negotiating team brings to mind unhappy images of the ghosts of failed negotiations past. In their analyses of past failures, many referred to the quality of the negotiators, as well as the lack of transparency, any sense of collective decision-making and the absence of specific terms of reference, especially to international law, as the prime culprits.

The internal division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and the continuing tension between Fateh and Hamas, meanwhile, is a double-edged sword for the Palestinian leadership. On the one hand, it is encouraging the Americans and Israelis to move faster toward a process, in the assumption that this will strengthen the position of Abbas. But at the same time the split undermines the Palestinian position vis-a-vis Israel to such an extent that it is tempting to see the current American and Israel enthusiasm for negotiations as an attempt to exploit the weakness of the Palestinian leadership in order to wring further concessions from the Palestinian side.

Meanwhile, preparations for the Annapolis meeting are facing two major challenges. One is Arab participation. Arab states--especially Saudi Arabia, which has never participated in any official meeting with Israel--have attempted to encourage Israel to agree to end the occupation by offering to lend their support to the meeting through their participation. That would constitute a victory for Israel in terms of normalization, especially in the case of Saudi Arabian attendance. But as the Israeli position on the Annapolis meeting is becoming clearer with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statement that the meeting will achieve no more than a joint statement of general principles, both the Saudis and the Syrians have become hesitant.

The other challenge is from Israel. The Israelis are increasingly reluctant to allow the Annapolis meeting to include any substantial discussions on final status issues and as it approaches, Olmert is facing growing criticism from across the Israeli political spectrum including from within his own Kadima party. As a result, he is attempting to escape into generalities. The less substantial the issues under discussion in the meeting are, the safer it is for Olmert. However, this will be very embarrassing for Abbas, who has been explicit in his optimism and relatively high expectations for the meeting.

While it is neither wise nor realistic for the Palestinian side to have any high expectations, the Annapolis meeting can be used it to expose the illegal Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian territories as the real obstacle to peace. Such a Palestinian strategy can be successful in persuading the international community to pressure Israel to behave in the occupied Palestinian territories in accordance with the premises upon which this meeting is convening, i.e., the pursuit of a two-state solution on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. It should be made clear to the 36 countries set to participate in the Annapolis meeting that there is a stark contradiction in Israel undertaking to negotiate a peace based on a two-state solution while at the same time undermining the very possibility of a Palestinian state from emerging by continuing to expand illegal settlements that are not only obstacles to peace but also increase the security burden on both Israelis and Palestinians.


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