Monday, November 26, 2007


The upcoming diplomatic confabulation in the American, Southern city of Annapolis, is one which I, like many other observers were highly skeptical would achieve much (for which see Richard Holbrooke's remarks to that effect published here, almost four weeks ago). Well it would appear, in view of the breakthrough, in attendance at any rate, if not necessarily in actual results (just yet), seems to indicate that all of the players in this particular show: the Americans, Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis, the Egyptians and Jordanians, even the Syrians (!), have agreed to send delegations to come to this get together. With the latter in particular being the surprise announcement, in view of the hostility that Syria's ally Persia has expressed for Annapolis, as well as the pig-headed obstinacy that official Washington has expressed for the regime in Damascus. With however the partial American acceptance of the idea that the magic mots: 'Golan Heights', will not necessarily be forbidden at the meeting, Assad fils, gave the go ahead and decided to ignore the remonstrances of his ally in Tehran (for more on the dynamics of Syria's last-minute decision to go to Annapolis, go to the best of all possible sources on Syria politics and diplomacy:

In light of my own not very good predictions about what may or may not be achieved, I thought that for once, instead of sitting on my diplomatic soapbox preaching on what should will or can be done, I would present for this audience of diplomatists in exile as it were ('internet exile' comme il faute), a potpourri of voices and views, from different venues. While none of them seem to say quite the same thing, they all do seem to indicate, that as opposed to the collective dismissal of the chattering diplomatic observers like myself or even seasoned practitioners like Richard Holbrooke, there is a small bit of hope that something, perhaps mere hope itself will emerge from the talks at Annapolis. Which is not to say that I have turned into a starry eyed optimist or a believer that the mere fact of 'talking' with one's opponents will magically make the many, many problems of the Near and Middle East suddenly, tout `a coup, disappear like magic. It will most definitely not. But, perhaps for starters, mere 'talk', pour-parlers, as it were is all that is needed or required. As Churchill rightly said in his dotage in the period when the existence of humanity seemed to be threatened (1954): 'jaw- jaw, is always better than war-war'. And, that goes for intifadas too my fellow readers.

"Anyone who expects Annapolis to lead to an agreement is ignoring the situation on the ground. The gaps between the relatively moderate Israeli stance, which is represented by the Olmert-Barak government, and the relatively moderate stance represented by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are still too profound. Even a consensual declaration of principles is apparently unattainable: In any declaration of principles, the Palestinians will demand that Israel agree, more or less, to a return to the 1967 borders and to turning Jerusalem into the capital of the two states. It is hard to imagine that the Israeli government would be willing and able to do so at present. Although we can reasonably assume that a future settlement, if it is in fact achieved, will follow those guidelines, an outright declaration to that effect by Israel is not politically feasible at the moment....

What can nevertheless be expected of Annapolis? First, something has already been achieved. After almost six years in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not spoken to each other, in recent weeks they have been meeting regularly. Perhaps they have not yet reached agreements, but the fact they are talking is in itself an achievement that should not be made light of....

It is in fact a modest endeavor, and certainly not the End of Days. But after the collapse of the Oslo Accords and what seemed to be a rift that could not be mended, this is a certain and significant achievement. Only in this way, step by step, will peace ever be established in our region".

"To Annapolis - Without Illusions", by Shlomo Avineri in

"Few events in Mideast peacemaking history have been subjected to as much cynicism as today's Annapolis meeting. This is due to the perceived lack of planning in the lead-up to the meeting, mismanagement of expectations, and the reported gaps between Israelis and Palestinians over the text of a joint declaration at the meeting's conclusion.

A closer look, however, reveals that prospects for the meeting may not be so bleak. Following six-and-a-half years of aversion to getting involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, the US is now seriously engaged. Just as important is the unprecedented tying in of Palestinian statehood with American interests. Speaking in Ramallah on October 15, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unequivocally stated that a Palestinian state was an American national interest.

Another first is the mutual trust by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the sincerity of the other in wanting peace. So too is the changed Middle Eastern political environment, one that is close to the tipping point in terms of the spread of violent radicalism. This has focused minds in the US, Israel, and among moderate Arab states. All of these dots have connected to make reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in all the parties' interests.

With realism and achievability as the context in which success is defined, two tracks must progress in tandem. The first is the initiation of a serious process of negotiations between the parties leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state based on internationally accepted parameters and the 2002 Arab peace initiative. This is the much-mentioned "political horizon" that is so critical to re-establishing Palestinian faith in achieving statehood through negotiations. Progress on this track will result in increased Arab involvement in the process, particularly that of Saudi Arabia. Arab participation is critical in both reassuring a skeptical Israeli public and giving Palestinians the political support to make the necessary tough political decisions. The role of the US must be to closely oversee, monitor, and shepherd the process with accountability and consequences for recalcitrant action by either side....

Equally important is the second track, which is a visible and marked improvement of conditions on the ground. Internally, Palestinians are primarily concerned with establishing law and order. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has taken significant steps toward re-establishing security with the recent deployment of thousands of Palestinian police across the Occupied West Bank, most notably in Nablus....

Can all of this be accomplished without Palestinian unity and the continued exclusion of Hamas? Initially yes. The mandate of President Mahmoud Abbas, as chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, entitles him to negotiate with Israel. Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza has decreased its support among Palestinians, reducing its spoiler ability. Future progress on the political track and improvements on the ground will further weaken Hamas, allowing Abbas to negotiate a national unity agreement with the movement from a position of strength, based on acceptable conditions".

"Give the Peace Summit a Chance", by Raafat Dajani is executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, in

"The bar is very low. Success would be a reaffirmation of the common principles of working towards a “two-state solution”, Israel and a Palestinian state side by side; recognition of Israel’s need for security (the stock phrase that refers to protection from Palestinian terrorism); and the need of Palestinians for a viable economy (at the moment throttled by the seal that Israel has thrown around Gaza, and its clampdown on the West Bank). Throw in trappings such as the presence of Syria, and a Saudi official not below the level of Foreign Minister, and that would do....

It’s hard, but yes. Professional optimists – and most of those who give their lives to the cause of Middle East peace are of necessity of this breed - subscribe to the philosophy that it is always good to talk. Even if that seems trite, this is a good time for another attempt – not because either side is strong enough to make the concessions that have proved so elusive, but precisely because of the new mutual sense of threat and urgency. A deal may be as hard as ever to reach, but the consequences of failure are clearly becoming worse".

"Why the Annapolis Talks - and a fear of failure - raise hopes for Middle East", Bronwen Maddox is Chief Foreign Commentator of The (London) Times, in

GEOPOLITICAL INTELLIGENCE REPORT: A Glimmer of Hope at Annapolis, By George Friedman

"U.S. President George W. Bush will host a meeting Nov. 27 between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Annapolis, Md. This is fairly banal news, as the gathering seems intended to give the impression that the United States cares what happens between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The last such meeting, the Camp David summit between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, sponsored by then-President Bill Clinton, was followed by massive violence. Therefore, the most we have learned to hope for from such meetings is nothing. This one will either be meaningless or catastrophic.

There is an interesting twist to this meeting, however. The Arab League voted to encourage Arab foreign ministers to attend. The Saudis have announced they will be present, along with the Egyptians and Jordanians who were expected there. Even the Syrians said they will attend, as long as the future of the Golan Heights is on the table. We would expect the Israelis to agree to that demand because, with more bilateral issues on the table, less time will need to be devoted to Palestinian issues. And that might suit many of the Arab states that are ambivalent, to say the least, about the Palestinians....

Behind this strange move are the complexities of Palestinian politics. As PNA president, Abbas is charged with upholding its charter and executing PNA foreign policy. But another group, Hamas, won the last parliamentary elections and therefore controlled the selection of the prime minister. Such splits are not uncommon in political systems in which there is a strong president and a parliamentary system, as in France.

But in this case the split ripped the Palestinians apart. The problem was not simply institutional, but geographic. The Palestinian territories are divided into two very different parts -- the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The former was dominated by Jordan between 1948 and 1967, the latter by Egypt. They have very different social and economic outlooks and political perspectives. In June, Hamas rose up and took control of Gaza, while Abbas and Fatah retained control of the PNA and the West Bank.

This created an historic transformation. Palestinian nationalism in the context of Israel can be divided into three eras. In the first era, 1948-1967, Palestinian nationalism was a subset of Arab nationalism. Palestine was claimed in whole or in part by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In the second era, 1967 to mid-2007, Palestinian nationalism came into its own, with an identity and territorial demands distinct from other Arab powers. An umbrella organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), consisting of diverse and frequently divided Palestinian movements, presided over the Palestinian national cause, and eventually evolved into the Palestinian National Authority.

Recently, however, a dramatic shift has taken place. This was not simply the Hamas victory in the January 2006 elections, although the emergence of an Islamist movement among the Palestinians represented a substantial shift among a people who were historically secularist. It was not even the fact that by 2007 Hamas stood in general opposition to the tradition of the PLO, meaning not only Fatah but other Palestinian secular groups. The redefinition of the Palestinian issue into one between Islamists and secularists had been going on for a while.

Rather, it was the rising in Gaza that dramatically redefined the Palestinians by creating two Palestinian entities, geographically distinct and profoundly different in outlook and needs. The idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, divided by Israel, was reminiscent of Pakistan in its first quarter-century of existence -- when what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh, divided by India's thousands of miles, were treated as one country. It was a reach.

Suddenly in June, a new reality emerged. Whatever the Palestinian charter said, whatever the U.N. resolutions said, whatever anyone said, there were now two Palestinian entities -- "states" is a good word for them, though it upsets everyone, including the Palestinians. Hamas controlled Gaza and Fatah controlled the West Bank, although neither saw this situation as final. The PNA constantly threatened to reassert itself in Gaza, while Hamas threatened to extend its revolution to the West Bank. Either might happen, but for now, the Palestinians have split along geopolitical lines.

From Israel's point of view, this situation poses both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that Hamas, more charismatic than the tired Fatah, opposes any settlement with Israel that accepts the Jewish state's existence. The opportunity is, of course, that the Palestinians are now split and that Hamas controls the much poorer and weaker area of Gaza. If Hamas can be kept from taking control of the West Bank, and if Fatah is unable to reassert its control in Gaza, the Israelis face an enemy that not only is weakened, but also is engaged in a long-term civil war that will weaken it further.

To bring this about, it is clear what Israel's goal should be at Annapolis. That is, to do everything it can to strengthen the position of Abbas, Fatah and the PNA. It is ironic, of course, that Israel should now view Fatah as an asset that needs to be strengthened, but history is filled with such ironies. Israel's goal at Annapolis is to cede as much as possible to Abbas, both territorially and economically, to intensify the split in the Palestinian community and try to strengthen the hand of the secularists. Israel, however, has two problems.

First, Israeli politics is in gridlock. Olmert remains as prime minister even after the disaster in Lebanon in 2006, because no real successor has emerged. The operant concept of the Israelis is that the Palestinians are unstable and unpredictable. Any territorial concession made to the Palestinians -- regardless of current interest or ideology -- could ultimately be used against Israel. So, creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank would turn what is a good idea now into a geopolitical disaster later, should Abbas be succeeded by some of the more radical members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade -- a group that carried out suicide bombings during the intifada. Israel's obsession with the unpredictability of the Palestinians and its belief in territorial buffers cannot be overcome by a weak government. Thirty years ago, it took Menachem Begin, heading a strong government from the right, to make peace with the Egyptians.

At the same time, the Israelis are terrified at the idea that Hamas will topple Fatah and take control of the Palestinian community as a whole. As Olmert was quoted as saying Nov. 23, "We cannot maintain the status quo between us and the Palestinians ... it will lead to results that are much worse that those of a failed conference. It will result in Hamas taking over Judea and Samaria, to a weakening or even the disappearance of the moderate Palestinians. Unless a political horizon can be found, the results will be deadly." Olmert clearly understands the stakes, but with Benjamin Netanyahu to his right, it is unclear whether he has the political weight to act on his perception.

For Olmert to make the kind of concessions that are needed in order to take advantage of the geopolitical situation, he needs one thing: guarantees and controls over the evolution of Hamas. We have seen Fatah go from what the Israelis consider the devil incarnate to a moderating force. Things change. If Hamas can be brought into the political process -- and the split between Gaza and the West Bank maintained -- Israel will be in a superb position. But who can moderate Hamas, and why would Hamas moderate?

Enter the Saudis. The Arab League resolution gave them cover for attending the Annapolis talks -- which is the reason they engineered it. And the Saudis are the one force that has serious leverage with Hamas, because they underwrite much of Hamas' operations. Hamas is a Sunni Islamist group and as such has a sympathetic audience in Riyadh. Indeed, in many ways, Hamas is the Saudi answer to the secular Fatah. Therefore, if anyone can ultimately deliver Hamas, it would be the Saudis. But why would they?

On the surface, the Saudis should celebrate a radical, Islamist Palestinian movement, and on the surface they do. But they have become extremely wary of radical Islamism. Al Qaeda had a great deal of sympathy in the kingdom, but the evolution of events in the Islamic world since 9/11 is far from what the Saudis wanted to see. Islamist movements have created chaos from Pakistan to Lebanon, and this has created opportunities for a dangerous growth in Shiite power, not to mention that it has introduced U.S. forces into the region in the most destabilizing way possible.

At the end of the day, the Saudis and the other royal families in the Persian Gulf are profoundly conservative. They are wealthy -- and become wildly wealthier every day, what with oil at more than $90 a barrel -- and they have experienced dangerous instability inside the kingdom from al Qaeda and other radical Islamist movements. The Saudis have learned how difficult it is for the state to manage radical Islamism, and the way in which moral (and other) support for radicals can destabilize not only the region, but Saudi Arabia as well. Support in parts of the royal family for radical Islamist movements seems dicier to everyone now. These are movements that are difficult to control....

That means that the Saudi view of Hamas is somewhat different today than it was 10 years ago, when Riyadh was encouraging the group. A civil war among the Palestinians would achieve nothing. Nor, from the Saudi perspective, would another intifada, which would give the Americans more reason to act aggressively in the region. The Saudis have moved closer to the Americans and do not want them to withdraw from Iraq, for example, though they do wish the Americans would be less noisy. A Hamas grab for power in the West Bank is not something the Saudis want to see now....

The Saudis want to stabilize the situation without destroying Hamas (which is very different from al Qaeda, given that it stems from the Muslim Brotherhood tradition). The Israelis want to maintain the split between Hamas and Fatah and limit Hamas' power without eliminating it -- they like Fatah looking toward the Israelis for protection. Fatah badly needs to deliver concessions from Israel to strengthen its hand. The Americans can use a success and a change of atmospherics in the region.

Here is the delicate balance: Abbas has to receive more than he gives. Otherwise his credibility is shot. The Israelis find it difficult to make concessions, particularly disproportionate ones, with a weak government. But there are different kinds of strengths. Begin could make disproportionate concessions to the Egyptians because of his decisive political strength. Olmert is powerful only by default, though that is a kind of power.

It is interesting to think of how Ariel Sharon would have handled this situation. In a way he created it. By insisting that Israel withdraw from Gaza, he set in motion the split in the Palestinian community and the current dynamic. Had he not had his stroke, he would have tried to make Annapolis as defining a moment as the Begin-Sadat summit. It would be a risky move, but it should be recalled that few besides Begin believed that the Camp David Accords on the Sinai would have lasted 30 years. But that is merely editorializing. The facts on the ground indicate an opportunity to redefine the politics of the region. There are many factors lining up for it, the concessions Olmert would need to make in order to box Hamas in might simply be beyond his ability.

So long as no one mentions the status of Jerusalem, which blew up the Camp David meetings under Clinton, there is, nevertheless, a chance here -- one we take more seriously than others". in


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