Annapolis and Beyond

With an administration defined by the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, lacking a single foreign policy success in eight years, President George Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice were ready to grasp at straws to bolster their "legacy." That was undoubtedly one important reason why they hastily decided to hold a conference At Annapolis on November 27, 2007 in order to help resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Forty- four nations attended. Nor was the Bush Administration above using bribery and arm-twisting to encourage participation. It is particularly interesting to recall the new multi-year $30 billion military aid package offered to Israel and the $25 billion to Saudi Arabia roughly four months prior to the meetings in Annapolis. Few of the forty states were enthusiastic about the meeting and Syria only decided to attend after it was agreed in what might, arguably, prove the most important legacy of the conference to place the return of the Golan Heights on the agenda.

In fairness, it should be noted, George Bush was the first American President willing to acknowledge the need for a Palestinian state though he refused to meet with Yassir Arafat and, while he was alive, publicly condemned him as a "terrorist." But this doesn’t change the fact that the Annapolis meeting was poorly planned and conceived in an atmosphere of desperation. No declaration of common principles or agenda for future talks was offered. No mention was made of UN Security Council Resolution #242 though President Bush stated that the United States would now "monitor" progress on the part of both Israelis and "Palestinians" or, better, Fatah. Hamas as well as the smaller Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were not invited and they stated that, even if they had been invited, they would have refused to attend. These organizations then held their own separate conferences, and brought 100,000 supporters into the streets to protest the meetings at Annapolis. It is also worth considering that, since the conference took place, Israel has once again made numerous military incursions into Gaza, tightened its embargo, and witnessed an old fashioned pogrom carried out against Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the West Bank city of Funduk, and encouraged the United States to withdraw a resolution seeking UN support for resolving the conflict.

The Annapolis meetings could not have occurred at a more inopportune moment. Perhaps the conference took place because the major participants were politically weak and, therefore had nothing to lose: President Bush is a "lame duck" lacking a majority in Congress; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is still smarting from his disastrous incursion into Lebanon and down in the polls; President Mahmoud Abbas, with the specter of Hamas looming, has nothing to show for his conciliatory attitude toward Israel and the West. In any event, whatever made possible the conference, the political weakness of its major participants will most likely undermine the possibility of resolving the "final status" issues surrounding the creation of a new Palestinian state: the future of Jerusalem, the "right of return," the Israeli settlements, and the question of borders.

Even while the Palestinians insist upon East Jerusalem being the capital of their new state, and wish the details settled quickly, there remain roughly 250,000 Israeli settlers in and around the Arab parts of the city. A right wing contingent of Israelis thus seeks to delay any such development. The same groups and concerns come into play when discussion turns to the "right of return." It is absurd to believe that every Palestinian from the occupied territories will instantly rush back to reclaim land and houses held in the past. That is especially the case if, using as a model the German policy of compensating Jews for what they suffered under Hitler, Israel were to provide monetary compensation to individuals in exchange for relinquishing their "right of return. Both Hamas and western progressives should recognize that these would be sensible policies to support. Bringing about "one capital for two states" and coming to terms with the "right of return" in a practical way are preconditions for settling the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

President Abbas has staked his career quickly realizing these ideas. But stalling is crucial for the Israeli right less in order to preserve the "Jewish" character of the state than its imperial policy. It is the same with the settlements. Even if Israel were to inhibit their further growth, they already dot the entire landscape. Radical Zionists and religious fanatics see these Jewish outposts as testaments to the creation of a "greater Israel" and there is a palpable threat of civil war should demands arise for their dismantling or the transfer of territory to the Arabs. Lastly, with respect to the borders for a new Palestinian state, while there is a general understanding that Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders is a pre-requisite for a viable Palestinian state, Prime Minister Olmert remains vague about the details and seems intent to delay the process as long as possible. Other structural obstacles exist as well. President Abbas is in the position of either embracing a potentially unfavorable negotiated agreement, thereby risking civil war, or seeing his support from the United States and Western Europe withdrawn. As for Prime Minister Olmert, unless he makes some overture toward peace, he will anger his Western allies. At the same time, if he does make such an overture, he will anger his reactionary coalition partners like Shas and the Pensioners’ Party (Gil) who might well switch their allegiance to Benjamin Netanyahu. Demands that Abbas clamp down on "terrorism" before Israel settlements are dismantled essentially means that Fatah will have to clamp down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the (utopian?) hope that Israel will keep its part of the bargain.

Western progressives must begin to confront in public the more sophistic arguments put forward by Israel in the name of "security." But they must also call upon Hamas to facilitate the peace process. This would make things easier for the Palestinian people — and that should be the prime purpose. From the organizational standpoint of Hamas, however, simply to acquiesce in the peace process would also improve the position of Fatah. A bold stroke leading to a fundamental shift in policy is therefore required by Hamas. This would involve not merely changing its attitude toward Israel, but changing its attitude toward Fatah. The United States and Israel might make that easier by combining economic incentives with political incentives. Fatah would need to be pressured, the more moderate elements of Hamas would need to be backed, and its leadership would need to be provided with an honorable way to change course. The necessity for progressives to back such a course seems obvious since as things now stand: 1) Fatah and Hamas have fundamentally different aims; 2) both have genuine popular support if, admittedly, in varying degrees; and 3) any decision on a negotiated settlement made by Fatah will either call for ratification by Hamas or a military assault on Hamas.

No insistence on the part of President Bush that he will employ his considerable "political capital" will prove meaningful unless he is willing to recognize these divisions among the Palestinians and lend his support to the original principle of a "two-state" solution. But that is only possible if real pressure is placed upon Israel by the United States. In this regard, progressives should concern themselves less with symbolic exercises like an international "boycott" on Israeli universities. Illiberal and counter-productive demands of this sort inflame the passions without any clear political purpose. It is better to highlight demands even if they are exceptionally difficult to achieve — that would make a difference. These should include above all — cutting military aid to Israel unless it accepts the proposal of Saudi Arabia and the Arab League calling for withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 boundaries in exchange for the formal recognition of Israel by member states of the Arab League. The possibilities of having such a radical policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict confirmed in the United States are, admittedly, slight. But there is no use in progressives fooling themselves — no symbolic activities can substitute for the real thing. At the same time, even should Israel be pressured to offer a suitable settlement, it would remain incumbent for the two wings of the Palestinian movement to achieve a modus vivendi. Thus, while it was not done at Annapolis, it is essential for progressive voices both to call for Palestinian unity and insist upon the importance of bringing Hamas into the peace process.

Again, in fairness, the Annapolis meetings were intended less to forge a peace settlement than the "framework" for providing one. But there is a problem. While what constitutes such a general framework has been obvious in principle since a "two-state" solution first gained popularity, its recognition in fact has remained cloudy since the collapse of the talks at Camp David in 2000. Holding aside all other issues, the "two state" solution originally rested on the assumption that two states each with its own contiguous territory would co-exist side by side. But that notion can no longer be taken for granted. The vision of a contiguous Palestinian state was ignored in the proposal supported by President Clinton (and subsequently rejected by Yassir Arafat) in favor of a "second state" composed of effectively discrete cantons over which Israel maintained control over roads, airspace, water, and major constructions. Under these conditions, of course, skepticism regarding a two-state solution by groups like Hamas makes sense. The quality of the peace proposals offered by Israel has degenerated as the imbalance of power between the two sides to the conflict has grown and the ability of the Palestinians to stand united has decreased. Thus, the Palestinians stand at the crossroads.

They share the memory of dispossession, a language, a religion, the dream of a secular state, and the struggle against a common enemy. Emphasizing the need for unity between Hamas and Fatah should be a primary concern since the greater the degree of organizational and ideological disunity the worse the deal that the Palestinians will have to ponder. As things stand today, in this regard, the Palestinians are deeply divided between two movements, two forms of struggle, and two political visions. If it is ideally a matter of forging a bond between the most forward thinking elements of Hamas and Fatah, therefore, it is first necessary to render a judgment about the policy that might best serve the Palestinian national interest. Choices must be made over whether to privilege the religious over the secular, violence over negotiation, and ultimately the bi-national over the two-state solution to the conflict. Nor is this choice as simple as it may initially appear. Secularism is on the defensive, negotiations have stalled, and a viable two-state solution now seems almost as utopian as a bi-national state. The next offer made by Israel might pale even in comparison with that made at Camp David — and it will be tough for the Palestinians to swallow. Nevertheless, the alternative is worse.

Israel is not going away and the most downtrodden among the Palestinians will pay the highest price for a policy predicated on embracing violence, rejecting all prior agreements, and denying the existence of the "Zionist entity." Hamas and its more fanatical allies can insist upon framing a choice between "struggle" and "surrender." But that is really not the choice at all. Calling upon Hamas to shift gears and support negotiations that will bring about a far less than perfect Palestine now does not imply abandoning the quest for a more viable state in the future any more than would insisting upon the immediate dismantling of existing settlements, lifting the virtual cordon sanitaire around Gaza (and Bethlehem), or demolishing the road-blocks and checkpoints that plague the Palestinian people. Even the shards of a new state could generate concrete proposals for future steps that might make it contiguous. New possibilities for investment could arise. A viable bureaucracy and security apparatus could begin to develop along with new incentives for Hamas and Fatah to reach some kind of new modus vivendi. The Palestinians could perhaps also find themselves playing a different role in the international community and representatives of their sovereign state might finally be recognized as a legitimate "negotiating partner."

All of this is, admittedly, speculative. But such a policy offers a far better bet for positive outcomes than the paralyzed politics of the present in which economic collapse is already under way, civil war looms, and increasing numbers of Palestinians are bereft of both hope and clarity of purpose. Lenin knew what he was doing during World War I when, seeing his country gobbled up by its enemies, he called for "peace at any price" rather than the "neither war nor peace" policy advocated by Trotsky or the demands to continue the military campaign against Germany by Bukharin. The analogy is appropriate when considering the choices faced by the Palestinians with regard to taking a deal, maintaining an intolerable status quo, or romanticizing a fruitless military struggle whose costs will be borne by a weary and scarred citizenry. Something is to be learned here from a very different historical context if not about the superiority of communism then about the value of realism: salvage what is possible, give the citizenry a breather, and then let the political struggle continue.


Stephen Eric Bronner is Professor (II) of Political Science at Rutgers University whose most recent book is Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation. He is also the Senior Editor of Logos.

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