A Great Stage that Should Not be Missed

A Great Stage that Should Not be Missed

There is something unconvincing, even insincere, about the tentative steps and gestures being made by the parties trying to arrange the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland next week to re-launch Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. It is hard to generate any real anticipation from a process in which the principal Israeli and Palestinian parties are politically weak, the American hosts are imprecise and hesitant, the desired supporting Arab state actors are playing hard to get, and the agenda is as clear as mushroom soup.

Those are all reasons why the Arabs who are invited to go to Annapolis should accept the invitation without reservations, go with enthusiasm and confidence, and use the gathering as a stage to demonstrate the Arab will for a fair and negotiated peace. If Annapolis is a confused and murky process, the Arab world should respond to it with clarity and confidence.

Nowhere in the Annapolis process is there any decisiveness or conviction, any real sign of a burning desire the make concessions, compromises, or genuine peace. The whole process smacks of American self-serving expediency, rather than an honest mediator”s sincerity. Washington seems to be trying to compensate for the heavy price it has paid in the world for three policies in recent years: ignoring the Arab-Israel issue for the first 6 years of the Bush administrations, attacking Iraq and setting off a series of negative consequences in the region, and throwing its weight around by applying or threatening sanctions against governments it does not like.

The United States now finds itself in the unenviable position of being criticized all around the world, widely seen as a destructive power, and yet not feared. It has lost much of its capacity both to deter and to cajole other countries. The sudden 180-degree turn on getting involved in Arab-Israeli peace-making is unconvincing precisely because it is so sudden, severe and out of character — almost maniacal in its intensity.

Nothing new can be seen in the preparations for the Annapolis meeting. The principals are still dancing around the same old dynamics that have already failed several times in recent years — releasing some prisoners in Israeli jails, pledging to freeze Israeli settlement expansion, promoting Palestinian security forces and economic opportunity, and other such stalwarts and regulars of the post-Oslo attempt to make peace.

Israel has thrown in the new demand that Palestinians formally acknowledge Israel as “a Jewish state,” which complicates matters even further and makes agreement less likely. About 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Muslim and Christian Arabs, and their status in “a Jewish state” would be unclear, as would the rights of Palestinian refugees to a redress of grievance under existing UN resolutions that say they have the right to return and/or to compensation.

Both sides are still trying to formulate statements on issues they have grappled with before, but are likely to come up with wording so vague that it is meaningless in practical terms. Annapolis is looking more and more like a jamboree of words, symbols, statements and photo opportunities that simultaneously camouflage but emphasize the fundamental discord in Arab-Israeli relations.

The Israelis will not acknowledge Palestinian rights to a viable state and a fair resolution of refugee rights, and the Palestinians in turn will not recognize Israel as “a Jewish state.”

Most of what is going on is not new, and we are all dancing because the Americans suddenly decided to strike up the band. Therefore we in the Arab world have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by turning Annapolis around and making it an opportunity. The Palestinians and Arabs, including Saudis and Syrians, should announce that they are delighted to go to Annapolis if invited because they see it as a moral obligation and constructive political endeavor to explore any possible means of moving towards a negotiated resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

We should go to Annapolis and use it as a powerful stage from which to speak to the whole world, including the Israeli people who will be watching closely. We should use it principally as a venue where we could articulate clearly our desire to negotiate a permanent peace, based on the 2002 Arab peace plan, and expose once again the vacuous and insincere nature of the Israeli and American positions. Or, if the Israelis-Americans are in fact sincere and committed to genuine peace-making through negotiations based on UN resolutions, then they can make that clear for their part, and we can move to our shared goal of a fair, permanent, legitimate peace accord.

Annapolis is not a serious peace-making endeavor, but it is a spectacular stage that the Arabs can use to challenge Israel, the United States, and the world to make peace sincerely, rather than through the stealth, evasion, and imprecision that defines the current mist-filled road to the gathering.