There's little reason to hope for a breakthrough at the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, unless there is a fundamental shift in U.S. policy in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And there's little evidence to suggest such a change is forthcoming.
Indeed, Yossi Beilin, the Israeli Knesset member and former cabinet official who served as one of the major architects of the Oslo Accords, called for the conference to be canceled, fearing that it will only be "an empty summit that will only attract Arab ambassadors and not decision-makers alongside an Israeli leadership that prefers [appeasing Israeli hardliners] over a breakthrough to peace." As a result, he argues that the meeting is doomed to fail and, as a result, would "weaken the Palestinian camp, strengthen Hamas and cause violence."
The reason for such pessimism is that ever since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks began in the early 1990s, U.S. policy has been based on the assumption that both sides need to work out a solution among themselves and both sides need to accept territorial compromise. As reasonable as that may seem on the surface, it ignores the fact that, even if one assumes that both Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights to peace, freedom and security, there is a grossly unequal balance of power between the occupied Palestinians and the occupying Israelis. It also avoids acknowledging the fact that the Palestinians, through the Oslo agreement, have recognized the state of Israel on a full 78% of Palestine and what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is asking for is simply the remaining 22% of Palestine that was seized by Israel in the 1967 war and is recognized by the international community as being under belligerent occupation.
However one may respect Israel for its democratic institutions (at least for its Jewish citizens), its progressive social institutions (like the kibbutzim), and its important role as a homeland for a historically oppressed people, the fact remains that the Palestinians have international law on their side in demanding, in return for security guarantees, an Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The U.S. position, however, is that 22% is too much and that the Palestinians must settle for less.
According to Israeli journalist Uri Avnery, the only way the conference could pave the way to peace would be if President George W. Bush decided "to exert intense pressure on Israel, to compel it to take the necessary steps: agree to the establishment of a real Palestinian state, give up East Jerusalem, restore the Green Line border (with some small swaps of territory), find an agreed-upon compromise formula for the refugee issue." The United States, which provides Israel with over $4 billion in military and economic aid annually and has repeatedly used its veto power at the UN Security Council to protect the Israeli government from being compelled to live up to its international legal obligations, has the power to do so.
According to Shlomo Brom of Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies, "Judging from previous experience, US pressure can be very effective." There's no evidence that the United States plans to use that kind of clout, however, to move the peace process forward.
The Palestinians, Saudis and other Arab participants have been pushing for a comprehensive package of Israeli actions that would include a freeze on the growth of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, the release of Palestinian political prisoners, the relaxation of travel restrictions and checkpoints in the occupied territories and an end of construction of parts of the separation barrier inside the West Bank as called for by the International Court of Justice. Failure for Israel to agree to such conditions and the failure of the United States to push Israel to agree to such conditions has led to concerns that it would be simply a propaganda coup by the Bush administration and Israeli government to give the appearance of an ongoing peace process when, in fact, they are unwilling to make the necessary comprises for a sustainable peace.
Israel has recently announced the release of approximate 400 Palestinian prisoners, though thousands - most of whom have never engaged in terrorism - remain incarcerated. Some of the roadblocks that have crippled travel and commerce in the occupied West Bank have been lifted, but scores of others still impede Palestinians from traveling from one town to another.
There are some indications that Israel will announce at the conference a freeze on the construction of additional settlements in the West Bank. However, they have agreed to such a freeze on several previous occasions, including in an annex to the 1978 Camp David agreement, the 1992 loan guarantee agreement, the 1993 Oslo Accords, their response to the 2001 Mitchell Report, and other times, only to continue construction anyway without the United States insisting they live up to their promises. And Israel has ruled out withdrawing from these illegal settlements, every one of which violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which deem it illegal for any country to transfer any part of its civilian population onto territories seized by military force.
Indeed, UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471 explicitly call on Israel to remove its colonists from the occupied territories. However, both the Bush administration and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress have gone on record that Israel should not be required to withdraw from the majority of these settlements.
It's these settlements, along with the separation barrier snaking its way deep into the West Bank to separate them and surrounding areas from Palestinian population centers, which has made a peace settlement impossible, since the apparent goal of formally annexing them into Israel would divide up a future Palestinian mini-state into a series of non-contiguous cantons consisting of as little as half of the West Bank. These Jewish-only settlements connected by Jewish-only highways effectively have created an apartheid-like situation on the West Bank. Any Palestinian state remaining would effectively be comparable to the notorious Bantustans of South Africa prior to majority rule. Despite this, this partial Israeli disengagement from most Palestinian-populated areas while controlling much of the land surrounding them - known as the Convergence Plan - has received the support of the Bush administration and an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress.
Unless the Israel and the United States are willing to address the core issues - boundaries that would insure a viable contiguous Palestinian state, withdrawal of troops and settlers from the West Bank (except perhaps for some along the border in exchange for an equal amount of Israeli land), and a just resolution of the refugee problem - the conference will amount to little more than a photo op.
Indeed, the current unilateral Israeli initiative is not much worse than the so-called "generous offer" put forward by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David summit in 2000. Arafat's understandable refusal to accept such a limited proposal was then used by the United States and Israel as supposed proof of the Palestinians' lack of desire for peace.
The Annapolis meeting is ostensibly designed to re-start the process along the so-called "Roadmap" for Israeli-Palestinian peace, originally announced in 2002, which was to be based on the principle of Israeli support for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel following democratic reforms by the Palestinian Authority and the end of terrorist attacks. Provisions called for in Phase I, which was originally hoped to have been completed by 2003, included an end to Palestinian violence, Palestinian political reform (including free elections), Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian Authority areas re-conquered since 2001, and a freeze on the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
However, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and a sizable majority of House members sent a letter to Bush insisting that the peace process be based "above all" on an end of Palestinian violence and the establishment of a new Palestinian leadership. There was no mention of any reciprocal actions by the Israeli government, reiterating the longstanding U.S. position that it is not the occupation, but resistance to the occupation, that is the root of the conflict. President Bush agreed and, not surprisingly, the Roadmap stalled.
Recognizing Israel as a Jewish State
The prospects of progress growing out of the Annapolis meeting is made all the less likely due to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's insistence, backed by the U.S. Congress, that the Palestinians, despite having formally recognized Israel, also recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" before substantive issues can be negotiated. Given the sizable Palestinian minority in Israel and concerns that it would legitimate past and future Israeli efforts at ethnic cleansing, this demand is something that the Palestinian government could never agree to and appears to be designed to prevent the peace process from moving forward.
Indeed, the Soviets never demanded as a precondition of any agreements with the United States that the USSR be formally recognized as a "Communist state," nor has Pakistan ever demanded that India recognize it as an "Islamic state."
Though the United States has indicated its desire to emphasize an end to Palestinian violence - particularly acts of terrorism - and addressing Israel's security concerns, there is no indication that the United States also plans to address issues concerning human rights or international law outside of providing increased humanitarian relief for the Palestinians.
If progress seems so unlikely, why is the United States pushing for this summit to go forward? One motivation may simply be for the United States to improve its standing among pro-Western Arab regimes by appearing to be interested in the plight of the Palestinians in order to gain support for the ongoing war in Iraq and increasing threats against Iran. Whatever the reason, unless and until the United States recognizes that Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent upon the other, there is little hope for peace.