Like Madrid on Tranquilizers

Like Madrid on Tranquilizers

It is ironic, but symbolically telling, that the latest attempt to spark serious Arab-Israeli peace negotiations is physically based at an American naval military facility in Annapolis, Maryland. Whether the political anchorage of the process is similarly reliant on America’s military engagement and strategic interests in the Middle East remains to be seen. The signs are not encouraging, though, if we are to judge the players by their actions, rather than their words.

The key unanswered question about the Annapolis meeting is about the motives of the American hosts. I write this Tuesday morning as the gathering gets underway, before the outcome is clear. It is hard to be very hopeful for substantive breakthroughs when the past nine months of continuous trips by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — and equally frequent bilateral Israeli-Palestinian high-level meetings — have been unable to generate even a simple declaration of principles to launch the Annapolis meeting.

If the principals cannot agree on a few sentences to describe why they are at Annapolis, then why are they at Annapolis?

This is very low-intensity, low expectations diplomacy. Never in recent world history have so many governments and political actors worked so hard, for so few tangible results. In many ways this is a rerun of the 1991 Madrid conference, but on tranquilizers. Yet, the presence of so many countries and officials at Annapolis is meaningful. Why did the Bush administration expend so much energy to arrange this gathering?

The answer to this riddle is crucial to determining whether we should expect any concrete or positive outcomes. The Israeli and Palestinian governments are both weak and politically constrained by serious domestic opposition. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is only quasi-legitimate, given the absence of Hamas from the process. The Arab participants, like young children dragged to an ancient history museum by their parents, are not going to win any enthusiasm awards for their presence.

This leaves the American hosts as the main drivers of the process. The intensity of the American push for Arab-Israeli negotiations in the past nine months is impressive in its mechanics, but unconvincing in its political substance. For President Bush to reaffirm yet again that he remains committed to a two-state solution comprising Israeli and Palestinian sovereign states living in peace and security is not very impressive or meaningful. He made that pledge several years ago, then got on his horse and rode away into the sunset and into the war in Iraq — instead of backing up his pledge with concrete diplomacy. Now, he’s back, galloping at high speed.

The Bush administration’s dilemma is that nobody takes it very seriously any more, largely due to its own self-inflicted wounds. Bush and Rice have spoken rhetorically of a historic American commitment to a Palestinian state, but simultaneously have pursued policies throughout the Middle East that do several things at once to discredit that goal.

Washington’s policies in the region since 2003 have
• bolstered Israeli colonization, assassination, collective punishment, and economic strangulation policies in occupied Arab lands;
• tacitly or enthusiastically backed Israel’s war and attacks against Lebanon and Syria; • ignored the worsening conditions in Palestine that generated more support for Hamas and discredited the Fateh-led government;
• supported President Abbas in his battle against Hamas, thus indirectly fostering radicalization of Palestinians and many other Arabs;
• strengthened Iran’s strategic posture throughout the region;
• weakened “moderate” Arab regimes that Washington has desperately sought to forge into an anti-Iranian alliance;
• through the Iraq war and threats against Syria and Iran, created the greatest single prevailing boost to the proliferation of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction procurement by players in the region;
• dampened native Arab enthusiasm for democratic elections, thanks to the American-Israeli-led boycott of Hamas’ election victory in 2006;
• almost totally wiped out any credible, independent European diplomatic role in the region;
• opened large spaces for Russian diplomatic re-entry into the Middle East;
• alienated a majority of Turks who should have been a major American ally; and,
• due to all this and more, largely discredited itself as an honest mediator.

Despite all this, we are asked to believe that Washington, like a born again believer and reformed alcoholic, has suddenly seen the wrongs of its ways, miraculously righted itself on the righteous path, and is anxious to lead us all towards peace and prosperity. This is a hard tale to swallow, not because I do not believe the Americans, but because the actions of the American government flatly contradict its rhetoric.

So why is Washington suddenly so committed to Arab-Israeli peace? We still do not know. A clear answer would be useful, for honesty is the first step on the road to renewed credibility. Whatever happens after Annapolis will probably see the Israelis and Arabs pursuing their same old policies, but it will offer Washington a new opportunity to show that it is genuinely committed to peacemaking. If there is a time to throw away the tranquilizers in Middle Eastern diplomacy, this is it.

Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International