Part of that pressure stems from the Annapolis Conference, set for November 26. Hamas will be a present absentee. Absent in the flesh, it will be strongly present as an obstacle.
The idea for the conference began as an American attempt to blur the debacle in Iraq by presenting a show of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Such a conference would have been impossible before the schism between Fatah and Hamas. The split freed President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) from any need to please the Islamists. The unbinding, however, cost him authority. Gaza is lost. In the West Bank he remains a weak reed. The disconnection from Hamas is now the first great impediment for him or anyone seeking to end the conflict.
The feet of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which originally warmed to the American initiative, have since cooled down. The conference has shrunk, in his vocabulary, to a mini-meeting. All the parties will trudge to Annapolis merely to hear a declaration that is supposed to jumpstart negotiations. The document should express, says Olmert, the parties’ mutual desire for peace. It should mention the core issues—permanent borders, Jerusalem, security measures, the refugees and water—but without demanding commitments for their resolution.
Apart from the rejectionism of Hamas, two further obstacles impede progress.
First there is the attitude of the participants. During Camp David in July 2000, we recall, the Arab world remained chilly, refusing to give Arafat the green light to go ahead and sign. Even Egypt and Saudi Arabia—staunch American allies—held back. In the subsequent vacuum, the second Intifada broke out, resulting in a weaker PA, a stronger Hamas, and Israel’s disastrous unilateral disengagement from Gaza.
Today, once again, the Arab world is chilly. As of this writing (November 15, 2007), not a single Arab country has expressed support for the conference. As long as Arab doubts persist, Abbas cannot commit to anything substantial. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are holding back. They have no confidence in “general understandings.” Indeed, Saudi Arabia some years ago put forth a highly regarded peace proposal of its own, which got no response from Israel or America.
Furthermore, in heading to Annapolis without Hamas, Abbas signals his acceptance of the schism. But despite their support for Fatah, the moderate Arab states do not want to make so radical a cut.
In contrast to the muffled silence of Egypt and the Saudis, Syria is quite clear: it will be willing to participate if the Golan Heights are mentioned as an issue to be negotiated in the current diplomatic process. Syria has even canceled a parallel counter-conference planned by the hard-line Palestinian organizations. However, as said, if Annapolis fails to receive broad Arab support, Abbas will not be able to negotiate. He needs Arab wind in his sails.
Another obstacle is the Israeli precondition, accepted by America, that the first stage of the Road Map must be fulfilled before Israel withdraws from the West Bank and a Palestinian state is established. In that first stage, Israel is required to stop construction in the settlements and to dismantle the many small outposts that have arisen in recent years. Where the settlements are concerned, Israel got a release from US President George W. Bush in April 2004, allowing it to broaden the larger blocs in accordance with natural increase. These blocs include Maaleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, the Jerusalem envelope and Ariel.
As for the Palestinians, the Road Map requires that they disarm the militias and combat terrorism. Absurdly, the same PA that Israel pulverized, starting with Operation “Defensive Shield” (2002), is supposed to rise somehow from its ashes and succeed where Israel failed.
What’s more, it is Israel that bears responsibility, in many respects, for the rift between Gaza and the West Bank. It is directly responsible, because it withdrew from Gaza unilaterally, instead of ensuring the status of the PA by reaching a negotiated pullout. It is indirectly responsible, because—fourteen years ago—it designed the Oslo Accords in a manner that transformed the PA into an Israeli security organization. Instead of offering peace with self-respect and independence, Israel viewed peace as a tactic for maintaining indirect rule. In the 1990’s, while Israelis thrived and the population of the settlements doubled, Palestinians got poorer. Lacking the conditions for true statehood, the co-opted leaders chose to feather their nests. The Palestinian people, fed up, rose against the Oslo Accords and ultimately against Fatah. Their choice of Hamas in 2005 was less an adoption of that party’s religious agenda than a means of punishing Fatah.
And now, instead of learning the lesson, Israel loads ever more impossible demands on the back of a man who represents, at best, only half the Palestinian people. Hamas, ruling Gaza, does not want to be a partner to Israel, while the man who is its partner can barely control what remains.
A peace process demands reconciliation and consensus. The Palestinian people was close to reconciliation with Israel in 1993, although the latter blew the chance by its take on the Oslo Accords. Today, largely because of Israel’s actions, the Palestinian people is divided and exhausted. Truth resides with neither of the clashing sides: not with Abbas, who gambles on a fruitless alliance with America and Israel, nor with Hamas, which offers nothing but fundamentalism.
A new path is needed. The first imperative must be to the stronger: Israel must cease to exploit Palestinian weakness, as it has in the past, in order to wring concessions. That is a necessary condition for the process that then must follow: the building of a Palestinian economy and the renewal of independent Palestinian institutions.