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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: 'Annapolis Will Absolutely Not Be Substitute For Direct Negotiations Between Israel & Palestinians'

'Annapolis Should Lend Support and Encouragement To Roadmap Peace Process'

In Gaza, Hamas Apparently Reacts To Annapolis By Launching More Advanced Grad Rocket Into Israel

US Naval Academy, Annapolis (Photo: Michael Slonecker)

What are the prospects for Middle East peace conference at Annapolis scheduled to convene at Annapolis next month? Although conference convener U.S. President George Bush has high hopes, the IsraCast assessment is that Annapolis has as little chance of bringing 'peace in our time' as did Munich nearly seventy years ago. While the participants try and rev up some momentum for Annapolis, Hamas reacts by escalating attacks on Israel from Gaza.

Despite the good intentions of President George Bush, the upcoming peace conference in Annapolis would appear to have slim to zero prospect of generating a break-through to Middle East peace. At best, it will conclude with a joint statement that recycles the Bush vision of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This time pro-Western Arab states may lend their support. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinians' Mahmoud Abbas have now set up their teams to draft as much constructive ambiguity as they can into that statement. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will soon return to the Middle East to prod the two sides into being as flexible as they possibly can. But neither Olmert, Abbas nor Bush with just a year left in his term appear to be in a position to make any dramatic step.

U.S President George W. Bush

During his first term, Bush more or less ignored the Israeli-Palestinian arena - it was not perceived as being linked to Iraq. But that perception has changed now the U.S. is seeking the support of pro-Western Arab states for a resolution to the Iraqi quagmire. The concern of Arab states over the specter of a nuclear armed Iran has also induced them to start thinking about joining a new coalition with the U.S. But in order to do so, their own 'Arab streets' want to see a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is the background to the Arab League initiative that offers peace to Israel in return for a total withdrawal to the 1967 lines including Jerusalem and apparently a return of the Palestinian refugees to the Jewish state. Although peace with the Arab world has always been the ultimate Zionist dream, these conditions pose unacceptable risks for the vast majority of Israelis including the far Left. But the Arab League would probably back any agreement accepted by the Palestinians. So, Annapolis is today linked to Iraq, Iran and the bigger evolving Middle East picture.

The timing: President Bush surprised both Olmert and Abbas with his convening of Annapolis. Wary of building exaggerated expectations he downgraded it to an 'international meeting'. However, Annapolis appears to be a measure of last resort in the Bush playbook. The Bush administration pressed both Abbas and the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon into letting the radical Islamic movement Hamas participate in democratic Palestinian elections. This as Abbas was championing a negotiated peace settlement with Israel while Hamas was openly vowing to destroy it. Well Hamas went on to win the election, collaborate with Islamic Jihad in rocketing Israel, drive Abbas out of Gaza leaving the Palestinian peace-maker hanging on the ropes on the West Bank where even there his position is questionable. The Palestinian camp is now riven by the bloody confrontation between Hamas and Abbas, who, if the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are included, probably enjoys the support of less than half of the Palestinian population. He is the leader who will be representing the Palestinians at Annapolis. While both Bush and Olmert have been trying to prop up Abbas as mush as possible, what can he expected of peace talks with such a weak leader? Meanwhile, Palestinian spokesmen have been warning that Annapolis must start dealing with the 'core issues' of a final agreement such as: borders, Jerusalem and refugees. They contend that a six-month time-table should be set for resolving these issues. Otherwise, they warn that Annapolis could be postponed. They exploit the frailty of the Palestinian peace camp as a bargaining chip contending that Israeli concessions are needed to strengthen their position vis-vis militant Hamas. As for terror activity on Abbas turf, there has been no let-up. IDF troops recently concluded a three day sweep into Nablus uncovering bomb labs and weapons caches as well as arresting several dozen fugitives. Fatah terrorists affiliated Abbas are still planning attacks against Israel from the West Bank and it is only the daily IDF counter- terror operations that has suppressed this activity.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Olmert's Outlook: The Prime Minister plays down the Palestinian threats. Olmert has made clear that: 'Annapolis will absolutely not become a substitute for direct negotiations with the Palestinians'. In his view, Annapolis should lend support and encouragement for the Roadmap peace process. The fact is that Olmert is also in a vulnerable political position after his perceived failure in running last year's war against Hezbollah. Olmert appears to have veered to the left in his readiness to make concessions and prove himself a peace-maker with Abbas. In any case, this tactic could serve as a bulwark in warding off future criticism of the Winograd enquiry into the war. Olmert appears to have taken a stand even to the left of Labor party leader Ehud Barak. Inside Kadima, Olmert's rivals such as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz are monitoring the Prime Minister's moves. Israeli concessions are highly sensitive; Olmert's agreement to release 29 Palestinian prisoners from Gaza even triggered a notice of protest from IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Ashkenazi because captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit is still being held prisoner in Gaza. So, even if Olmert wanted to help out Abbas by more concessions and revving up 'peace' momentum his options are limited.

Meanwhile, Opposition leader Bibi Netanyahu warns that Annapolis could turn out to be a trap for Israel. Israel will be facing not only the Palestinians but a U.S. Administration and a Bevvy of Arab states which may try and create the illusion that now is the time for a big push for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Radical Hamas may have won in Gaza but are now isolated and the Palestinians can now be persuaded to switch to Abbas and a negotiated settlement with Israel. This line of reasoning sees Israel holding the cards and must now start dealing. However, Olmert who has surprised some by his ability to remain in power after the Second Lebanon War and has even gained some popularity points after Israel's air strike into Syria last month, is ware of just how far he can go. Even his far-right coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu is not overly worried about Annapolis.

Grad Rockets

Olmert is sticking to the Roadmap peace plan that lays out a sequence of phases for the establishment of a Palestinian state. The first phase calls for the elimination of terror.Well Hamas has reacted to Annapolis by calling on the Arab states to boycott the conference. In addition, terrorists in Gaza have stepped up their rocketing attacks on Israel. In addition to the daily dose of home-made Qassams and mortars, the terrorists have also started launching more advanced Grad rockets with a range of over 20 kilometers.

Bottom Line: The Bush administration, Israel's Ehud Olmert, the Palestinians Mahmoud Abbas and the participating Arab states all have an interest in preventing the Annapolis conference from appearing to be a failure. Certainly neither Olmert nor Abbas will want to be blamed if it is. By the same token, when it comes to peace-making between Israel and the Arabs it has always taken strong leaders on both sides whether it was Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat of Egypt or Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein. As for Yasser Arafat, undoubtedly a strong Palestinian leader, was he a real peace-maker or a terrorist in disguise?

David Essing

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