The Annapolis conference concluded with due fanfare. Those who predicted an utter, complete and immediate disaster were wrong, but it requires a great deal of optimism to see any positive movement or real prospects for peace.
The weaknesses of the Israeli and Palestinian governments were a known factor going into the negotiations. As as been pointed out, they will not make it easier to make peace. But other factors are intervening to make it much harder to make peace.
The largest monkey wrench thrown into the peace works was undoubtedly the United States National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iranian nuclear weapons development. The NIE left foes smiling and friends on all sides in confusion. The NIE blew away any hopes of building a regional coalition against Iran. It removed the case for the imaginary impending attack on Iran conjured up by foes of the Bush administration, but it also killed the case for an urgent need for peace and unity among Middle East moderates. In Israel, it greatly weakened the case of the Olmert administration that concessions in the occupied territories were needed in order to gain U.S. support for confronting the very real strategic threat posed by Iran. Throughout the Middle East, the NIE bombshell and subsequent backtracking, hemming and hawing, destroyed any illusions that United States political and military leaders know what they are doing, have a coherent policy and speak with one voice. A Fatwa of the Ottoman ulema, apparently based on a hadith, states, "If there are two Caliphs, kill one of them." This extreme measure was wisely deemed to be better than the sort of anarchy that is gripping American policy. In the United States, it appears that there is more than one Caliph.
Israel released over 400 Palestinian prisoners as a confidence-building measure, but this could not inspire much confidence, since Israel arrests about 600 prisoners a month and is holding over 9000 Palestinian prisoners. Israeli intentions to expand the Har Homa project in Jerusalem could hardly inspire confidence on the Palestinian side that Israel is serious about peace. On the other hand, Secretary Rice's inept public reprimand of Israel on this issue, succeeded in making the Israeli government angry because of its confrontational tone, and didn't do anything to appease the Palestinians, who know that the reprimand is a pro-forma ritual. The illegal outposts, which Israel promised repeatedly to eliminate, have instead proliferated, and there is no sign of their removal. Instead, the government committee that was formed after the Sasson report to deal with the problem is not looking for ways to eliminate the outposts. Rather it is considering ways to continue funding the illegal outposts by passing legislation to circumvent the law. While Israeli officials were talking about making life easier for the Palestinians, the "facts on the ground" were telling a different story. South of Hebron, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli activists defied the IDF in order to plow fields of Palestinians that are beyond the security fence and therefore "off limits." In Bilin, activists continued to confront IDF soldiers and elicit violent responses over the location of the security fence, though the Israeli courts ruled that the fence must be moved. The fence may be needed to control terror, but nothing can explain why the Israeli government has done nothing to alleviate the needless hardship it causes.
At the same time, the possibility that Israel would make concessions in Jerusalem or elsewhere in the West Bank mobilized and united the forces of the naysayers, especially Jews living abroad. In the past dovish Jews in the United States claimed the right to determine Israeli policy and to push Israel into concessions it didn't want to make. Now it is the turn of the right wing Zionists to proclaim that there must be no concessions in Jerusalem, and that Israel must avoid peace conferences "like the plague." It seems that American Jews are all for democracy, as long as they can get to dictate to Israeli citizens what we ought to do.
On the other hand, the Palestinians, for their part, pretend that they don't know what the peace process is all about. They are still intent on the idea that the "peace process" is only about Palestinian Arab "rights" as they interpret them, and doesn't involve granting any rights to Jews at all. They seem to have forgotten that the conflict formally began when the Arab League and the Arabs of Palestine refused to accept UN General Assembly Resolution 181 sixty years ago. That resolution mandated the creation of an Arab state and a Jewish state in the territory of the Palestine Mandate. The Palestine Mandate itself, which the Arabs had not accepted, mandated the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. That home is the state of Israel. There can be no other resolution of the conflict than acceptance, in principle of the idea of two state for two people. Yet the Palestinian leadership insists, again and again, that it will never recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The excuse given is that this would prejudice the rights of the Arab minority, but the rights of the Arab minority in Israel can in no way depend on what the Palestinian government recognize or do not recognize. If the refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is symbolic and emotional, then it is a psychological barrier that must be overcome. If is a hint that the Palestinians will reserve for themselves the right to interfere in Israeli internal affairs, and to claim "rights" for Israel's Arabs in the same way as the German government once claimed "rights" for the Germans of the Sudetenland, then the Israeli government is quite right to insist on recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, as attempts to change the status quo would not end well.
There are some signs that the West Bank is returning to a semblance of civilized order. On the other hand, the distribution of ammunition by Israel has resulted in a precipitous drop in the price of ammunition in the West Bank. The market doesn't lie - those bullets are obviously getting into the wrong hands.
The Annapolis proceedings also studiously ignored the number one obstacle to peace: the separate government of the Hamas in Gaza. It is not just an impediment to a future agreement on a peace solution, it is a threat to the Abbas government, and a source of continuing violence. Over 2000 Qassam missiles have been lobbed into Israel this year and there is no end in sight. Hamas has hinted at the desirability of a truce, but this would tie Israel's hands in the war against arms smuggling and undermine the Abbas government. Meanwhile Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while paying lip service to the legitimacy of the Abbas government, are promoting "unity" between Hamas and Fatah -- at the expense of the Fatah. Egypt is also allowing Hamas members to go to Iran for combat training and return to Gaza, as well as presiding over the proliferation of arms smuggling tunnels. All this under the supposedly watchful eyes of the United States. Looming over the entire peace process is the threat of a major IDF operation in Gaza. As the depopulation of Sderot continues and the rocket and mortar attacks are stepped up, it is increasingly hard for the Olmert government to explain why it is not taking decisive steps to defence Israeli citizens. The United States isn't really bothering to find a solution, the Egyptians are helping the Hamas.
The Fatah government in the West Bank cannot do very much, but what they did was worse than nothing. It created a situation with a built - in mechanically fatalistic inevitability. Palestinian Authority leaders announced that a large scale IDF operation in Gaza would put an end to the peace process. Nobody asked them to make this announcement - they they did it as their own bad-will gesture. Palestinian leadership apparently do not understand that most people in the Israeli government believe that Israel needs a Palestinian state like it needs a hole in the head. Putting an end to the peace process hurts the Palestinian cause much more than it hurts Israel.
In effect, this gives both the Hamas and Israeli hawks an absolute veto over the peace process. A massive Hamas attack would make decisive Israeli reaction inevitable. Hamas has every reason to launch such an attack if it will derail the peace process and force the Palestinian authority to accept unity on Hamas conditions. As for the Israelis, the situation in Sderot long since violated every possible red line. If Olmert's government is weak, one doesn't have to search far to find a major cause of the weakness. No government can expect to be really popular if it can't defend its people. No country can stand by forever while towns are depopulated by continuous rocket fire. At any time, if Israel decides it has no interest in making concessions, it could launch an attack that would stop the peace process, and claim that the situation had become "intolerable." . Of course, whatever you won't tolerate is "intolerable."
Increasing Hamas terror activity would end the peace process even without any Israeli intervention. The Israeli government would be caught between responding to Hamas, which would stop the "peace process" or succumbing to opposition pressure and holding elections. Elections in those circumstances would almost certainly empower a right-wing coalition that would offer peace on very different terms if at all.
Perhaps a determined US effort could get the sides together, but it doesn't seem likely. The Palestinians never trusted American policy. The handling of the NIE on Iran gave Israel to understand that there is no American policy to trust. Moreover, the actions of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders do not give much confidence that either side really wants peace.
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