Claude Salhani
Khaleej Times (Opinion)
November 30, 2007 - 5:52pm

HISTORY will remember some days more so than others. Tuesday, November 27, 2007 will be one of those days. However, it may not be remembered in a way some hoped or expected. To be sure, there will be a lot of disappointment by the end of the day, for a variety of reasons, one being that too much expectation has been placed on this one day.

First, there are the sceptics; those who believed that Annapolis would be a total flop. As it turns out, it was not, and President George W Bush comes out looking much better than he probably expected, or at least better than the sceptics expected. As a follow-up to the Annapolis conference, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet President Bush at the White House to nail down more details of what the American president hopes will culminate with a final peace deal by the end of next year. On that note — that a final peace settlement can be reached by the end of next year — the sceptics remain sceptic.

And there are those who wanted to see the peace conference in Annapolis fail. Among them, one safe bet, are Iran and the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas. They will be disappointed because Annapolis will not fail, at least not entirely. Indeed, Annapolis may not go down in history as the conference which finalised the Middle East’s longest running conflict, but it did manage to bring together 16 Arab countries — among them Syria and Saudi Arabia — and Israel. Then there are those who want to see the peace conference succeed; among them, besides the principals — Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have invested heavily in this summit. But this group too will be disappointed because if the summit is not going to be an entire failure, neither is it going to be a stunning success. “Just a ceremony without substance,” is how Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council described the Annapolis conference. “The next day everything will go back to where it was,” Barghouti told me during a private conversation. Except that things won’t go back to where they were. All depends on what documents, or deals, the principals will carry in their briefcases upon returning to their respective countries. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went to Annapolis with a weak hand, he does not command nor control for that matter much following in the Palestinian street; he lost half his territory –- quite literally –- to his political opponents. Of all the participants at Annapolis, Abbas more so than others, needs to come away from it with something to show his people when he returns to Ramallah. Anything short of a large step in that direction will further weaken him and by the same token will strengthen Hamas. This is neither in the interests of the Palestinians, the Israelis, the United States or a majority of the Arab countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, too, has a lot riding on this conference and will need to take some very difficult decision; Olmert will have to decide whether to give Israel peace in return for land. At stake is the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Shebaa Farms in southern Lebanon, and of course, possibly the toughest decision for an Israeli prime minister to make, whether to allow Jerusalem, or at least the eastern half of it to be shared with the Palestinians.

Barghouti and others think that Israel will not come through. “They’re talking about the transformation of the idea of statehood into nothing but cantons and Bantustans and clusters of ghettos under a system of apartheid,” said the Palestinian member of parliament. This is George Bush’s entry cue; in the end it all comes down to just how much pressure the president will be willing — and able — to exert on Israel and win some concessions for the Palestinians.

Having starred the peace-making process, President Bush now needs to see it through. Any hesitation on the part of the United States to act as an honest broker in these negotiations will strengthen the critics of America. Washington’s policy towards the Arabs which is already suffering, will suffer even more.

In the end, the Annapolis conference will not produce winners in the traditional sense because in any resolution of conflict, all sides need to make concessions in order to achieve an agreement. But a lack of winners does not necessarily translate into losers. If as a result of these concessions comes a comprehensive blueprint leading to a permanent negotiated settlement of the Middle East conflict, Annapolis will have been a success. On the other hand, if predictions such as those made by Barghouti that all will go back to as before, again it won’t. It will be worse. All the reason more why this time it has to work.


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