Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are meeting – along with representatives of more than 40 countries and organisations – in Annapolis, Maryland, to try and resume the Mideast peace process, seven years after the Camp David summit ground to a halt.
It’s a meeting of moderate leaders on either side of a fractious conflict that has dragged for more than half-a-century.
According to Nissim Zvili, former Israeli MP and ex-Israeli ambassador to France, never before in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have leaders from both sides held closer standpoints as Abbas and Olmert.
And yet, like most Middle East experts, Zvili believes their chances for reaching an official agreement are slim.
“The paradox is that Annapolis gathers leaders who are moderate, they both share the vision of a two-state solution and agree on the need to negotiate the question of (Palestinian) refugees and (the status of) Jerusalem, yet they cannot reach an agreement because they are both too weak,” said Zvili.
Domestically, both Abbas and Olmert are politically weak leaders. After the 2006 war with Hezbollah, Olmert’s approval ratings have dipped and few Israelis trust Olmert to make a deal with the Palestinians.
On the Palestinian side, Abbas has effectively lost control of a segment of the Palestinian nation since his Fatah party was routed out of the Gaza Strip by the Islamic Hamas movement in June. The legitimacy of Abbas, as the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – the interim administrative organisation that governs the West Bank and the Gaza Strip territories –will be questioned by a segment of the Palestinian population.
As Bilal Hassan, noted journalist and former member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), puts it, Abbas is in an unenviable position. “If Abbas accepts the Israeli conditions, the crisis within the Palestinian nation will increase – I believe that’s exactly where we’re heading,” he said. “On the other hand, if Abbas refuses the Israeli conditions, tensions will rise between the PA and Israel.”
Don’t expect a deal
No official document is expected to come out of Annapolis and even the final common statement US President George Bush was counting on seems further than ever as disagreements have emerged over most of the issues plaguing past peace summits.
However, analysts say Annapolis could have positive results and that its mere existence could lead to future talks and give new a dynamic to the Israeli-Palestinian process.
“The main goal of Annapolis is to strengthen Abbas and to show Palestinians that the moderate way leads to compensations, contrary to the violent methods of Hamas,” Frederic Encel, from the Paris-based Institut français de géopolitique, told FRANCE 24. “Obviously the Bush administration and Ehud Olmert are also hoping to gain some benefits for themselves out of the conference, as they’re both in a weak position.”
Days before the conference, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the US would try to close the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Israeli President Shimon Peres also appeared pessimistic regarding the American administration’s hope for a quick breakthrough in negotiations: “A Mideast deal would be impossible to settle during the term of President Bush,” he admitted to reporters.
Hopes on the ‘moderate axis’
Much of the hopes for Annapolis rest on what President Bush refers to as the “moderate axis,” that promoted the 2002 Beirut peace plan.
“The goal of Annapolis is also to try and strengthen this ‘moderate axis’, of which Saudi Arabia is a major actor,” said Zvili. “The goal is also to encourage Syria to join the moderate circle.”
In some respects, Annapolis has succeeded in pushing parties closer to that goal. For the first time in history, Saudi Arabia – which has never recognised the state of Israel - will be sitting at the table with Israel to discuss Middle East peacemaking.
Rice has expressed the hope that Annapolis could be a “launching pad” for the two-state solution.
Analysts believe that most Palestinians support a two-state solution. But a contentious issue is the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinian position is that a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would forfeit the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Israel opposes the right of return since it would jeopardise its Jewish majority. And that, says Encel, lies at the heart of the problem.
“The crucial issue Palestinians and Israelis have to address today is the fundamental need to genuinely recognise one another. The other issues, such as the Israeli settlements and the Palestinian right of return, are not fundamental and can be resolved,” he said. “Palestinians see Israelis as Jews and Israelis see Palestinians as Arabs and as long as they keep their distorted vision, negotiations will fail. The Oslo agreement was a first step to mutual recognition as Israel accepted the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians recognised the state of Israel. But both parties have to go further. Peace cannot be reached otherwise.”