From Madrid to Annapolis

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As Palestinian and Israeli leaders were meeting in the Annapolis Naval Base last week for yet another attempt at peacemaking, I remembered how my journalistic career led me to cover the Madrid peace conference back in 1991. I vividly remember how then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker ’52 had kept everyone in the dark about the location of the international meeting. Once he declared Madrid as the site, many of us Palestinians felt a sense of jubilation at the looming discussions, yet the exact nature of the Palestinian delegation was also unknown until the last minute.

While there are some differences, some issues are still the same.

Besides the fact that in both cases a "Bush" president was in the White House, both conferences took place in the background of a violent Gulf War, and as was the case more than a decade ago, the United States knew that they had to offer something to its Arab allies — most importantly Saudi Arabia.

Like in Madrid, the key player making it happen was the U.S. secretary of state. And just as Secretary Condoleezza Rice had to muster all her diplomatic skills to get the meeting off the ground, former Secretary of State Baker had an even harder position with the hawkish Likud prime minister Yitshaq Shamir, his right-wing spokesman Binjamin Nethanyahu and with the Palestinian leadership that Israelis considered to be "terrorists."

While Mahmoud Abbas was introduced in Annapolis as the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), during the conference in Madrid, the PLO was not allowed to attend. The group did choose the Palestinian delegation, which was headed by one of its founders –” a respected Gazan doctor named Haider Abdeil Shafi (who passed away at the age of 88 this past September). While the PLO was the most obvious absentee in Madrid, the Hamas leaders, who won the parliamentary elections in Palestine, and the Iranians were the most talked about absentees in Annapolis.

While on paper, the potential for peace looks better now than it did in 1991, many Palestinians are much more skeptical now. Not only is the PLO present, but the idea of a two-state solution has become acceptable to all. Rice said that a Palestinian state is in the national interest of the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is quoted as saying that without a Palestinian state, Israel’s future will be in jeopardy.

Attending the Madrid conference felt essential, but the importance of summits has diminished as such forums have failed to produce results.

In the absence of an effective plan — even with strong U.S. presidential-level involvement — leading to independence from Israeli occupation and the ability to govern a sovereign, contiguous state, dissent has been on the rise among Palestinians. Some, seeing so many Jewish settlements dotting the West Bank, want to scrap the two-state solution and focus on a single, bi-national state.

Forty years after the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including Jerusalem, Palestinians have yet to find the formula for liberation. They have attempted cross-border violence (late 1960s), Arab and international diplomacy (1970s and ’80s), the first intifada (1987), secret talks in Oslo (1993), suicide attacks (throughout the 1990s and culminating in the second intifada), cross-border rocket attacks (2006 and this year), regional Arab initiatives (2000 and this year), international initiatives and peace envoys (since 1967), but nothing has succeeded.

The transcripts of conferences, peace initiatives, lofty speeches and U.N. agreements aimed at resolving the conflict could fill rooms. The reality is that, in defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which states that it is inadmissible to occupy land by force, Palestinian territories are still under foreign military occupation.

Skeptics of U.S. motives have good reason for concern. To overcome mistrust based on past failures, President Bush will need to spend substantial political capital. In the early days of the Bush administration, the idea of using the cachet of the presidency was anathema because of former President Bill Clinton’s failed attempts to broker a peace agreement. But such high-level influence is critical today.

Palestinians can no longer afford a step-by-step approach like the process begun in Madrid. In the past, plans employing incremental improvements have been targets for extremists seeking dates and locations to use to derail the peace process. Consider what a radical Israeli citizen did to Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Palestinian extremists have carried out suicide bombings and other horrific acts on the eve of Israeli elections and important redeployments, virtually guaranteeing the abandonment of Israeli withdrawal plans.

What is needed, as suggested in the Arab peace initiative and a number of Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives, is an agreed-upon final status — something like the 1967 borders — and a process to implement terms that will be agreed to by all parties. Otherwise, this and future summits will continue to fail.

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