On one level, the American initiative to convene a peace meeting at Annapolis marks a positive transformation in the American approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But on another, it reflects a continuation of the past.
Until recently, the Bush administration had acquiesced to the unilateral Israeli strategy adopted by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon convinced the American administration that canceling any political efforts and allowing the Israeli military instead the opportunity to pursue unhindered its endeavor to suppress the Palestinians would take care of the problem. The renewed American diplomatic efforts, led by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, thus marks a positive return to a bilateral track that recognizes the Palestinian side as a political partner.
On the other hand, this renewed diplomatic activity also embodies a return to many of the approaches to mediating between the two sides that failed in the past. For one thing, where the US should be representing the international community, once again Washington is instead monopolizing mediation efforts and marginalizing the role of other members of the Quartet, especially Europe and the UN.
Another problem with the current US efforts is that they are exhibiting several of the negative features that characterized the Oslo negotiations and severely weakened chances of their successful implementation. Current negotiations are characterized by secrecy, at least on the Palestinian side, thus precluding the input of the public and official decision-making bodies; they have taken place without agreed-upon and declared terms of reference, again leaving the Palestinian side at the mercy of the imbalance of power between the two sides; and, finally, the makeup of the Palestinian delegation, which was apparently influenced by the US, is more or less the same as that for the Oslo talks.
Meanwhile, in the last meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state disappointed the Palestinian side in three ways. First, Rice appeared to place greater importance on internal Israeli dynamics in her expectations of the language and content of any document to come out of the Annapolis meeting. Second, she brought nothing by way of progress in ending Israel’s negative practices in the occupied territories, including a possible relaxation of the Israeli closure regime, an end to settlement expansion or any significant prisoner release. Finally, she also brought no commitment from Israel to a timetable for negotiations.
Thus, Rice left the Palestinian leadership and peace camp in a disadvantaged position vis-a-vis the camp led by Hamas even before the Annapolis meeting has started. This is unfortunate, especially since it is less than two years since Hamas overwhelmingly won Palestinian elections, particularly as a result of the collapse of the peace process and the failure of the peace camp in Palestine to deliver on its promises to the public of a negotiated peaceful end to the conflict.
If the Annapolis meeting is not itself going to mark progress toward a political settlement that includes an end to the occupation, then it should at least mark the resumption of bilateral negotiations. In this case, there has to be a clear and intensive effort to reduce public expectations both in Israel and Palestine and avoid the exaggerated importance currently attached to this meeting.
Furthermore, the Arab world is advised to restrict its representation at Annapolis to those countries that already have relations with Israel, i.e., Egypt and Jordan. Attendance by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria would mark a diplomatic victory for Israel. Such a victory cannot come for free. If there is to be no end to settlement expansion, no easing of restrictions on movement in occupied territory and no clear commitment to negotiate an end to the conflict at Annapolis, there is no need to grant Israel any diplomatic victory in this way.