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Annapolis - 'Anchors Away!', Again

US Naval Academy, Annapolis
(Photo: Michael Slonecker)

Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, is the site of the latest American sponsored attempt to relaunch the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Hosted by President George W. Bush, representatives of many Arab states will be lending some much needed support to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But what can realistically be expected after Hamas, the radical Islamist movement which vows to destroy Israel, was elected to power and then expelled Abbas and his moderate cohorts from the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup last June? IsraCast views Annapolis as an American salvage operation that will try to keep the Israeli-Palestinian process afloat in the increasingly dangerous waters of the Middle East.

What are the prospects for the Annapolis conference? That depends upon the goals and expectations. It is being billed as a 'launch-pad' for a new round of intensive and direct negotiations between Israel and at best, half of the warring Palestinian side. The big difference with previous rounds is that hopefully most of the Arab world will be in the corner of the Palestinian moderates who say they want a negotiated settlement with Israel.

Palestinian terrorists in the streets

Middle East experts say the Sunni regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States are deeply worried that the radical Islamist threat and a nuclear armed Iran pose dire threats to their future survival. On the face of it, the Middle East appears ready fora re-alignment that includes the acceptance of Israel far beyond Egypt and Jordan. At this point in time, the US, most of the international community and the Arab world would appear ready to make a big push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During its first term, the Bush administration viewed the Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting as more or less a local irritant - the big battle against international terrorism and for a safe supply of oil was being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. But - no longer. The looming Iranian nuclear threat and US failure in Iraq pose a clear and current threat to the entire region, and the Arab regimes know it.

The writing has been on the wall for some time - even in Saudi-Arabia, which sponsored the Riyadh initiative to recognize Israel. But first of all, the 'Arab Street' demands a fair resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And here lies the rub! The same radical Islam has also made inroads inside the Palestinian camp. The Palestinians elected fanatic Hamas to power and once in office the Islamists threw to the winds any power sharing with moderate President Abbas.

So while readiness for peace with Israel has gained in the Arab world, it has suffered a severe body-blow among the Palestinians. At present, President Mahmoud Abbas's authority has shrunk to the West-Bank, where even there he's yet to enforce his motto of 'one gun - one law'. This week's drive-by killing of an Israeli on the West Bank again showed the terror organizations are still at large and there are no illusions in Jerusalem or Washington about the extent of Abbas's control..

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: Amit Shabi)

However, after precipitating the Abbas defeat in Gaza by insisting that terrorist Hamas be allowed to run in the 2006 election, the Bush administration has gone back to the drawing board with a new plan to rebuild Abbas and his administration, truncated though it may be. This calls for re-arming Abbas's security forces on the West Bank and urging Israel to release more Palestinian security prisoners It is all based on Abbas's good intentions - that he rejects violence and is ready to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. The idea is to build-up Abbas capabilities and show the Palestinians that this produces results and brings them closer to establishing Palestine. Israel's Prime Minister Olmert is playing his part by making concessions to Abbas in more ways than one. In a major shift in Israeli policy, Olmert has agreed to forego stage-one of the Roadmap peace plan - the basis for the post-Annapolis negotiations. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had insisted that stage one obligates the Palestinians first had to restrain the terrorists before any discussion on the core issues of final borders, refugees and Jerusalem. Olmert's critics at home warned the Prime Minister has gone gung-ho in the peace contacts in order to ward-off censure by the Winograd inquiry and police investigations.

Arthur Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940

Oddly enough, far-right and far-left Knesset Members agree that Annapolis will turn out to be a dangerous trap for Israel. Likud MK Yuval Steinitz compares Annapolis to Munich, where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain capitulated while claiming he had brought 'peace in our time' with Adolph Hitler. At the other end of the political spectrum, super-dove Yossi Beilin says Israel should not go to Annapolis because it has been so poorly planned it could spark another full-blown Palestinian Intifada. But when all is said and done it's the US that is extending the invitations to Annapolis, and as one senior Israeli official put it: 'If the US asks you to dance you don't say no'.

Undoubtedly Israel must do its part and if the US is prepared to make the effort to advance peace in Annapolis, Israel will be there or anywhere else.
But will Annapolis be limited to no more than a high-powered declaration of intent? Jerusalem believes it will, while the Palestinians hope that President Bush will chart some changes in America's course. President Abbas is so weak - what can be reasonably expected other than his voicing more good intentions? Has there been a ground swell of Palestinian public opinion on the West-Bank, now separated from Hamas, calling for an end to the violence and making peace with Israel?

Egypt and Jordan did make peace with Israel because they where led by leaders who not only had the intention but also the capability to do so. Bit in the Palestinian case there has been no basic change in the underlying reality that would indicate that conditions are now ripe for a serious and sustained peace drive that includes action on the ground and not just rhetoric in the air. And that is why most Israelis will hope for the best while suspecting that Annapolis will prove to be no more than a recycling of Oslo and Camp David . But if the region is heading into a critical year over Iran and Iraq with all that entails, there is something to be said for yet another attempt for Israeli-Palestinian movement where others failed.

David Essing

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