Like quite a lot of political initiatives, this one too, according to all the indications, started more or less by accident. George Bush was due to make a speech. He was looking for a theme that would give it some substance. Something that would divert attention away from his fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Something simple, optimistic, easy to swallow.
Somehow, the idea of a "meeting" of leaders to promote the Israeli-Palestinian "process" came up. An international meeting is always nice - it looks good on television, it provides plenty of photo-opportunities, it radiates optimism. We meet, ergo we exist.
So Bush voiced the idea : a "meeting" for the promotion of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Without any preceding strategic planning, any careful preparations, anything much at all.
That’s why Bush did not go into any details : no clear aim, no agenda, no location, no date, no list of invitees. Just an ethereal meeting. This fact by itself testifies to the lack of seriousness of the entire enterprise.
This may shock people who have never seen close up how politics are actually conducted. It is hard to accept the intolerable lightness with which decisions are often made, the irresponsibility of leaders and the arbitrary way important processes are set in motion.
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FROM THE MOMENT this idea was launched, it could not be called back. The President has spoken, the initiative starts on its way. As the saying goes : One fool throws a stone into the water, a dozen wise men cannot retrieve it.
Once the "meeting" had been announced, it became an important enterprise. The experts of all parties started to work frantically on the undefined event, each trying to steer it in the direction which would benefit them the most.
Bush and Condoleezza Rice want an impressive event, to prove that the United States is vigorously promoting peace and democracy, and that they can succeed where the great Henry Kissinger failed. Jimmy Carter failed to turn the Israeli-Egyptian peace into an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Bill Clinton failed at Camp David. If Bush succeeds where all his illustrious predecessors have failed, won’t that show who is the greatest of them all ?
Ehud Olmert urgently needs a resounding political achievement in order to blur the memory of his dismal failure in the Second Lebanon War and to extricate himself from the dozen or so criminal investigations for corruption that are pursuing him. His ambition knows no bounds : he wants to be photographed shaking the hand of the King of Saudi Arabia. A feat no Israeli prime minister before him has achieved.
Mahmoud Abbas wants to show Hamas and the rebellious factions in his own Fatah movement that he can succeed where the great Yasser Arafat failed - to be accepted among the world’s leaders as an equal partner.
This could, therefore, become a great, almost historic conference, if
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IF ALL these hopes were something more than pipedreams. None of them has any substance. For one simple reason : no one of the three partners has any capital at his disposal.
Bush is bankrupt. In order to succeed at Annapolis, he would have 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.
But Bush is quite unable to exert the slightest pressure on Israel, even if he wanted to. In the US, the election season has already begun, and the two big parties are bulwarks standing in the way of any pressure on Israel. The Jewish and Evangelistic lobbies, together with the neo-cons, will not allow one critical word about Israel to be uttered unpunished.
Olmert is in an even weaker position. His coalition still survives only because there is no alternative in the present Knesset. It includes elements that in any other country would be called fascist (For historical reasons, Israelis don’t like to use this term). He is prevented by his partners from making any compromise, however tiny - even if he wanted to reach an agreement.
This week, the Knesset adopted a bill that requires a two-thirds majority for any change of the borders of Greater Jerusalem. This means that Olmert cannot even give up one of the outlying Palestinian villages that were annexed to Jerusalem in 1967. He is also prevented from even approaching the ’core issues" of the conflict.
Mahmoud Abbas cannot move away from the conditions laid down by Yasser Arafat (the 3rd anniversary of whose death was commemorated this week). If he strays from the straight and narrow, he will fall. He has already lost the Gaza Strip, and can lose the West Bank, too. On the other side, if he threatens violence, he will lose all he has got : the favor of Bush and the cooperation of the Israeli security forces.
The three poker players are going to sit down together, pretending to start the game, while none of them has a cent to put on the table.
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THE MAJESTIC mountain seems to be getting smaller and smaller by the minute. It’s against the laws of nature : the closer we get to it, the smaller it seems. What looked to many like a veritable Mt. Everest first turned into an ordinary mountain, then into a hill, and now it hardly looks like an anthill. And even that is shrinking, too.
First the participants were to deal with the "core issues". Then it was announced that a weighty declaration of intentions was to be adopted. Then a mere collection of empty phrases was proposed. Now even that is in doubt.
Not one of the three leaders is still dreaming of an achievement. All they hope for now is to minimize the damage - but how to get out of a situation like this ?
As usual, our side is the most creative at this task. After all, we are experts in building roadblocks, walls and fences. This week, an obstacle larger then the Great Wall of China appeared.
Ehud Olmert demanded that, before any negotiations, the Palestinians "recognize Israel as a Jewish state". He was followed by his coalition partner, the ultra-right Avigdor Liberman, who proposed staying away from Annapolis altogether if the Palestinians do not fulfill this demand in advance.
Let’s examine this condition for a moment :
The Palestinians are not required to recognize the state of Israel. After all, they have already done so in the Oslo agreement - in spite of the fact that Israel has yet to recognize the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own based on the Green Line borders.
No, the government of Israel demands much more : the Palestinians must now recognize Israel as a "Jewish state".
Does the USA demand to be recognized as a "Christian" or "Anglo-Saxon state" ? Did Stalin demand that the US recognize the Soviet Union as a "Communist state" ? Does Poland demand to be recognized as a "Catholic state", or Pakistan as an "Islamic state" ? Is there any precedent at all for a state to demand the recognition of its domestic regime ?
The demand is ridiculous per se. But this can easily be shown by analysis ad absurdum.
What is a "Jewish state" ? That has never been spelled out. Is it a state with a majority of Jewish citizens ? Is it "the state of the Jewish people" - meaning the Jews from Brooklyn, Paris and Moscow ? Is it "a state belonging to the Jewish religion" - and if so, does it belong to secular Jews as well ? Or perhaps it belongs only to Jews under the Law of Return - i.e. those with a Jewish mother who have not converted to another religion ?
These questions have not been decided. Are the Palestinians required to recognize something that is the subject of debate in Israel itself ?
According to the official doctrine, Israel is a "Jewish and democratic state". What should the Palestinians do if, according to democratic principles, some day my opinion prevails and Israel becomes an "Israeli state" that belongs to all its citizens - and to them alone ? (After all, the US belongs to all its citizens, including Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, not to mention "Native-Americans".)
The sting is, of course, that this formula is quite unacceptable to Palestinians because it would hurt the million and a half Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. The definition "Jewish state" turns them automatically into - at best - second class citizens. If Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues were to accede to this demand, they would be sticking a knife in the backs of their own relatives.
Olmert & Co. know this, of course. They are not posing this demand in order to get it accepted. They pose it in order that it not be accepted. By this ploy they hope to avoid any obligation to start meaningful negotiations.
Moreover, according to the deceased Road Map, which all parties pretend to accept, Israel must dismantle all settlements set up after March, 2000, and freeze all the others. Olmert is quite unable to do that. At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas must destroy the "terror infrastructure". Abbas can’t do that either - as long as there is no independent Palestinian state with an elected government.
I imagine Bush tossing and turning in his bed at night, cursing the speechwriter who put this miserable sentence into his mouth. On their way to heaven, his curses must be mingling with those of Olmert and Abbas.
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WHEN THE leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine were about to sign the Declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, the document was not ready. Sitting in front of the cameras and history, they had to sign on an empty page. I am afraid that something like that will happen in Annapolis.
And then all of them will head back to their respective homes, heaving a heartfelt sigh of relief.