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Behind Annapolis and Beyond...

Part 1 of Two-Part Series Looking at the Issues

By C. Hart | November 20, 2007

The Middle East peace parley, set to take place in Annapolis, Maryland next week, still does not have a set agenda. As Israel and the Palestinians wrangle over pre-conditions for going to the conference, to-date Arab leaders have not made a decision whether they will attend the meeting. The acceptance of invitations by members of the Arab League, who will be meeting later this week, is said to be a key factor in the ultimate success of Annapolis.

This is Part 1 in a two-part series (See Part 2) looking at issues Behind Annapolis and Beyond...

For the moment, last minute brinkmanship is taking place pre-Annapolis, with new demands being made by the Palestinians hoping to force Israel to agree to a settlement freeze, dismantling of outposts, removal of checkpoints, and the opening of PLO institutions in Jerusalem as essential conditions before they are willing to engage in the Maryland talks. Israeli officials had planned to offer some of those concessions at the conference bargaining table, but may be pressured by the U.S. administration to yield to those demands immediately.

U.S. President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have already pushed for a two-state solution in the Middle East – a state for the Palestinians alongside Israel. Recently, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert demanded that the Palestinians recognize the “Jewish” state, calling for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to drop his insistence that so-called Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel. A majority of the Israeli population cannot understand why the Palestinians would want to settle in Israel instead of their own state. Israeli leaders see the refugee issue as a “red line”, with Olmert already placing limits on how many Palestinians would be able to receive Israeli citizenship in the future.

These “red lines” are part of a wider gap that still exists between Olmert and Abbas over major issues, including Jerusalem, settlements, and final borders. While Olmert seems to be willing to concede on Jerusalem, some of his government coalition partners, along with Israeli opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu have called for no division of the holy city. Other members of Israel’s Knesset are unwilling to concede large amounts of territory in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), which the Palestinians are demanding, as they call for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1948 armistice lines. These major issues are now being postponed for serious negotiations after the Annapolis meeting. However, Arab leaders are concerned that if these issues are not addressed in Annapolis, there will be no reason to attend the meeting, which they have declared will become nothing more than a photo opportunity.

Israel already made one major concession earlier this week, releasing 441 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. This in addition to Palestinian prisoners released in another good-will gesture occurring during Ramadan two months ago. Yet, there has been no appreciation on the part of the Palestinians who are further demanding the release of thousands more prisoners, many of whom have “blood on their hands” from terrorist attacks against Israel.

For the moment, Abbas is playing the game of brinkmanship in his recent demands in order to strengthen his position among Arab states and the Palestinian population before Annapolis takes place. He wants to assure he will have something substantial to offer the Palestinians coming out of the meeting. Olmert, meanwhile, is strengthening his position among his Israeli coalition partners to assure that he will come back from Annapolis with his government still intact. He has faced serious political struggles since the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

In a report published by the Winograd Committee, an independent body designated by the Israeli government to investigate what went wrong during the Lebanon war, Olmert, along with his previous Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, were all blamed for bad decisions and failures in military operations during the conflict. In addition, Olmert has faced corruption charges in his handling of business deals during his previous government appointment as Minister of Industry and Trade. He continues to be unpopular among Israeli voters. The Annapolis conference is being seen as a litmus test of his ability to negotiate with the Palestinians without upsetting both the conservatives and liberals in his government coalition. If either the hawkish or dovish parties leave his government over his compromises or lack of compromises to the Palestinians, then new elections could take place in Israel following the Annapolis meeting. This could upset whatever progress was made in Annapolis, halting Palestinian aspirations, and possibly leading to an upsurge of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For now, time will tell whether Annapolis is a success or failure in providing a two-state solution in the Middle East, in accordance with U.S. foreign policy; or, whether it is simply an attempt to provide President Bush with a distinguished legacy before he leaves office in January 2009.

[C. Hart writes for ThreatsWatch from Jerusalem, Israel.]