Repeating the same mistakes

The Syrian connection to the current American initiative on the Middle East to convene a political meeting at Annapolis in the autumn is a good illustration of its deteriorating value.

At the very beginning of the initiative, Syria had three motives for engagement. First, Syria is a member of the Arab Summit Committee tasked with promoting the Arab peace initiative. At that early stage of the American initiative, the Arabs, including the Syrians but also the Saudis and others, were under the impression that the US initiative would base itself on the Arab initiative. Second, Syria has territory under Israeli occupation and thus Syrian participation in any political meeting aimed at solving the Arab-Israel conflict is required. Finally, Syria has its own agenda vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, evidenced by its relations with Hamas, and therefore another motive to engage with the American process.

But in the last four months, between the launch of this initiative and now, the Annapolis meeting has lost most of its political attraction to Arab countries, including the Syrians. Today, Arab attitudes toward Annapolis range between the cautious and the critical. While the Saudis are losing interest and are hesitant to even attend, Syria has taken an active position in opposition to the meeting and has agreed to host a simultaneous opposition conference in Damascus at the same time. This will of course be led by Hamas and include all the political and religious Palestinian factions that oppose Annapolis.

The Arab disinterest has come about because in spite of the extensive diplomatic exertions of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the current initiative looks set to repeat most of the mistakes committed in previous American Middle East peace efforts. These past failures have contributed to alienating this process from any Arab or popular Palestinian support. Syria has lost interest because the meeting is not going to allude to the Arab initiative nor is it going to allow Syria to discuss the occupation of its own territory.

Even on the Palestinian level nothing is happening. Rice declared in today’s meeting with Abbas that the American side will neither come up with a political proposal nor encourage the parties to get into the substantial issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, refugees, Jerusalem and borders, etc.

American acceptance of Yitzak Shamir’s conditions at the Madrid conference in 1991 was largely responsible for the many problems that appeared later in that process. Rice seems to be repeating this pattern by being as sensitive to internal Israeli politics as she is insensitive to the internal Palestinian political situation. The Americans will not allow Annapolis to touch on substance because the Israelis are refusing any discussion that will specify 1967 borders or refer to the refugees’ right of return in any way. On the contrary, Israel is pushing the Americans to accept its demand that any political statement has to address the Jewish nature of Israel.

To avoid the failure that almost certainly will result from the vast differences between the parties on these substantial issues, the fallback position of American diplomacy is to come up with a general political formulation that any party can interpret as it wishes. However, this will amount to precisely nothing.

And while such an outcome will save Israel internal problems, it will leave Abbas in a much worse situation than he is in now. Hamas, which is staying quiet during the buildup to the meeting, will simply turn around and say that, once again, diplomacy has failed. Yasser Arafat took his chances to end the occupation through negotiations and he failed. With no result from Annapolis, Abbas will have failed in the same way.

And Hamas can be expected to extract the maximum amount of political capital from such a situation, with its inevitable assertion that neither the previous process nor the current one has been able to stop the settlement expansion process and the consolidation of the occupation, let alone end the occupation, a basic requirement for any political agreement.