Amid much fanfare, leaders of Middle Eastern nations met in Annapolis this week at the invitation of the Bush Administration. The premise was to jump-start long dormant negotiations between the Arabs and Israel over their future relations. It featured the pomp and formality which typifies state events. There were the customary opening speeches filled with flowery promises that this time things will be different.
A realistic look at what led the parties down the road to Annapolis leaves one more sober about its future prospects and provides insight into the classic conflict between rulers and the ruled.
The first defect of Annapolis was that it was motivated by panic rather than any real commitment to peace. All of its participants sense that they are in trouble, are feeling insecure about their futures and fear that the clock is about to strike midnight. Israel is still in crisis from the debacle of its last Lebanon invasion. Constant military mobilization is straining its economy, and Gaza has become its worst nightmare. Syria senses its international isolation, the pressure of being squeezed between Israel and the US forces occupying Iraq, and the crippling economic effects of housing over one million Iraqi refugees. The Palestinians are under increasing siege by Israel while engaged in an internecine struggle of their own. The Bush Administration is desperate for any foreign policy achievement before the sand runs through its twelve-month hourglass. It is not a coincidence that the announced deadline for a final agreement is to be within twelve months.
Foremost in panicking the herd is the rising power of Iran and Islamic fundamentalism. Israel, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim nations backing the conference feel the shadow of Iran and growing fundamentalist influence drawing them together. Even Syria is rumored to be less than comfortable with its decreasingly symbiotic relationship with Iran. One can debate whether this is good or not. However, no party’s fear of Iran can provide a solid basis for peaceful relations with its enemies at Annapolis. It is a false premise which gives rise to a temporary alliance at best. What will become of the warm fuzzy feelings once Iran is no longer a threat?
The second problem is that the claimed desire for peace is being propounded by leaders who are discredited among their own people. Their lack of popularity stems from their chronic failures to fulfill past promises. The conference can be seen as a fraternity of unpopular government officials looking for their opponents to throw them a life preserver. They are primarily concerned with their own legacies and their abilities to hold on to power. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Desperate politicians may commit to deals which their citizens were not asked to approve and will never honor. The closer Arab rulers draw toward Israel the less credibility they have among their own people. Egypt’s Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel twenty-eight years ago, and paid for the treaty with his life. Today there are virtually no exchanges between Israelis and Egyptians, and hatred of Israel remains high among the average Egyptian.
The most glaring example of this problem is the divide within the Palestinian camp itself. Hamas won a democratic election insisted upon by the US. It was then deprived of its seat by its opponents. Those who supported Hamas were starved politically, economically and literally. Its leaders were subjected to targeted assassinations. Other Hamas politicians were rounded up and imprisoned by Israel with the complicity of the Fatah opposition. Yet, despite or perhaps because of these acts Hamas’ popularity rose among the Palestinians to the horror of outsiders. In the summer of 2007, Hamas would drive Fatah out and consolidate its hold over Gaza. Many experts claim that Hamas enjoys widespread support within the West Bank as well. Yet, it is Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah who have taken the Palestinian seat at the Annapolis table. Abbas and Fatah proclaimed themselves to be the sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people while tens of thousands of Hamas supporters publicly made a mockery of the declaration.
Israeli Prime Minister Ohlmert, has seen a string of disasters plague his administration. His ratings are sinking like a stone. Yet, he confidently declares that he can deliver the approval and backing of the very people who cannot wait for his departure. How many Israelis are prepared to have a Palestinian state next door? How many would relinquish their occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Golan Heights? How many Israelis are ready to embrace the potential return of millions of Palestinians who were made refugees in the quest to establish a Jewish state in Palestine? Will Israelis approve the demolition of the second "Great Wall" or the abandonment of decades of settlements built on occupied land?
President Bush is the least popular of all of the leaders who scurried to Annapolis. His lack of popularity at home is exceeded only by his lack of popularity in the Middle East where Bush is considered the devil incarnate. With domestic approval ratings in the low 20’s and barely a year left in office what foreign leader would sanely place his future in Bush’s hands? Answer: A foreign leader who is as desperate and unconcerned about the views of his own people as Bush is.
More importantly, why should we expect the respective citizens of either side to honor a plan which they oppose, and what is the plan worth if the only ones agreeing to it are the rulers rather than the ruled?
December 1, 2007