Daoud Kuttab
The Daily Star (Commentary)
November 28, 2007 - 4:07pm

American officials usually spend enormous energy highlighting the "process" in the Middle East "peace process." Only in the last 18 months of a second-term president or following a military engagement in the Middle East does the United States actually start to concern itself with "peace."

This pattern seems to be holding true for this week's US-sponsored Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. The difference now is that, unlike the Madrid Conference after the 1991 American-led Gulf war, the current effort is coming after a perceived American defeat in Iraq.

Assuming that the Bush administration is serious in its current efforts, the US must have a Plan B in case the just-completed Annapolis talks fail. For Palestinians, the main concern is to avoid negative repercussions if they do. Unlike former President Bill Clinton, who blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, the Bush administration must honor its commitment not to point fingers or allow either side to use failure to advance its strategic goals.

Palestinian negotiators have always had to balance three issues: historic rights, current realities, and the price of using their negative power. For Palestinians, the codewords for historic rights - liberating Palestinian land, securing the right of return for refugees, and insisting on a truly independent state - are "international legitimacy." For both the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas, this refers to various United Nations resolutions and international public opinion, which have amounted to little more than lip service on the part of Western powers and Arab and Islamic leaders, whose statements raise false hopes, enticing Palestinian negotiators to harden their positions.

The current realities that the Palestinians must reckon with include their strategic, political, and economic imbalance vis-a-vis Israel and the United States, the reality of occupation, and the challenges of diaspora life. For example, Israel's harsh policies to confront the 1987 intifada, coupled with the boycott of the PLO by oil-rich Arab countries (because of its failure to oppose Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait), imposed a potent reality check on the Palestinian leadership.

Finally, Palestinian negotiators after Annapolis will have to consider the consequences of using their most valuable bargaining chip - the ability to reject a perceived bad deal - in terms of its direct effect on Palestinians and the strong possibility of continued expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands.

The late Haidar Abdel Shafi repeatedly stated one of the major problems in the Oslo Accords, namely that it didn't secure the halt of settlement expansion in the interim period or if final-status talks failed. At Camp David II, in 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak cleverly insisted that the first clause of his offer included acceptance of the end of the conflict, which was a problem for Palestinians, given that historic rights remained unresolved. Arafat used his negative power and blocked a settlement, but he couldn't predict the consequences.

Before Annapolis, Palestinian negotiators insisted that they did not plan to engage in substantive negotiations. They argued that the positions acceptable in Taba (following the failure of Camp David II) had to be the basis of any agreement, and that what needed be negotiated afterward was the timetable for implementation. Backed by a reasonable Arab peace plan, they insist that there is already a worldwide consensus on restoring the 1967 borders (with mutual adjustments of equal size and quality), the need for a fair agreement on dealing with refugees, and a formula to share Jerusalem.

As a result, Palestinian negotiators have reversed their position on the step-by-step approach to negotiations - an approach that proved disastrous, as it was exploited by radicals on both sides and gave the Israelis the time they needed to build more illegal settlements.

Fears abound among Palestinians of another spasm of violence if no agreement if the Annapolis round of talks fails. But what is crucially important for Palestinians is that, whatever the outcome, new Israeli settlements must not be built and land expropriation must end.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that the creation of a Palestinian state is a component of US national security. But a Palestinian state will not appear now or in 10 years if Israel continues build settlements in areas slated to be part of that state.


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