George S. Hishmeh
Arabic Media Internet Network (Opinion)
February 15, 2008 - 2:11pm

It is now almost three months since representatives of nearly 50 countries and international organisations attended the historic Middle East peace conference at the Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis which gave many high hopes that a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is around the corner.

The event was the first serious action on the Arab-Israeli conference since President George W. Bush assumed the presidency more about seven years ago.

At the opening session, the president announced that the two feuding sides had agreed "to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008".

But as of today this hope is fast dwindling, primarily because the Bush administration has not proceeded forth with full steam.

The testimony of various Palestinian and Israeli leaders as well as former US officials with extensive experience in Middle East are now of the view that little will be achieved by the end of this year unless the Bush administration focuses fully on the conflict that has been raging for more than 60 years in the Middle East.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington DC, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad noted that Annapolis was a major step forward "but I cannot say we are not facing difficulties". Since the conference, he went on, "Israeli incursions and bombings on Palestinians and their property claimed the lives of 165 Palestinians, injured another 521, and caused untold damage to property".

Moreover, the prime minister, an American-educated economist and a former senior official of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, said Israel has meanwhile intensified settlement activity, particularly in and around East Jerusalem.

"As we attempt to negotiate, Israel published tenders for hundreds of housing units in occupied East Jerusalem colonies, and continued construction on thousands of housing units. This handicaps the Palestinian negotiators not to mention the (apartheid) Wall and the closure regime which continue to suffocate the Palestinian economy."

Without mentioning Hamas by name, the rival group that runs Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip, Fayyad concluded his remarks, which did not receive any attention from the American media, that the political fragmentation we currently face is at least partly a result of the failure to deliver freedom and peace to our people".

Unlike Fayyad, who avoided any direct criticism of the Bush administration, two former senior US officials speaking last week at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) were more direct.

They were Harvey Sicherman, a former assistant secretary of state and at present president and director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and Martin Indyk, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East policy and ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, including the period encompassing the 2000 Camp David summit. Indyk is also director of the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution.

Dennis Ross, a former Mideast peace envoy and a counsellor at WINEP said in a recent article that Israel's policy of "isolation and containment ... designed both to pressure Hamas to stop rocket fire and show it could not succeed, came crushing down".

Oddly, he recommended that Israel should give the international community a "six or nine" month deadline to come up with alternatives to the Israeli supplies before imposing a total cut-off. He believes that this "would put the onus and responsibilities back on Hamas for life in Gaza".

Assessing the likelihood of Bush scoring a significant achievement in his last months in office in order to embellish his legacy, Sicherman observed that this is "a known pattern" of a president coming in his final year with his "reach exceeding his grasp in many areas".

In the Palestinian-Israel case, he thought the minimum that Bush can achieve will be to "bequeath to his successor a working process (and) this would be more of an achievement than President Clinton passed on to him".

But, he said, he does not expect this to happen before the fall and "there may be a great deal of violence that would take place, particularly in Gaza, before that happens".

In turn, Indyk said Bush raised expectations "sky high and so far nothing has happened since then except bad things, as in Gaza". He thought that a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is "a bridge much too far" for Bush, who, he explained, was influenced by President Clinton who had advised him not to "trust the ... Arafat (because) he would lie to you like he lied to me".

Nevertheless, Indyk stressed that the objective should be "a working process that a next president can pick up and perhaps can then drive to a successful conclusion".

He also indicated that he favoured a resumption of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations "but not to make it the focus as we did (under the Clinton administration) but a Syria-also process.

"He believed this approach will have "a number of advantages", including giving "cover to Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) and the Arab leaders who have an interest in engaging in this process ... and will create tension between Syria and Iran, and put Iran somewhat on the defensive ...."

It is interesting that all this does not sound different from what Haim Ramon, the Israeli vice premier, who said his country hoped to reach agreement with the Palestinians on a "declaration of principles" by the end of the year, but not on a detailed peace treaty.

But the Palestinian prime minister assured his Washington audience that "by now the basic parameters (for a settlement) are well known"; so this tells you who is in a hurry and who is not!


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