In recent years, the long story of the Palestinian struggle has been punctuated by meetings, conferences and summits of various kinds between Israeli and Palestinian officials, usually mediated by international leaders or institutions. Yet there was a time, only a few years ago, when it was assumed that everything could be sorted out if only the two sides could be persuaded to sit together and talk. Then, the great object of all the politicking was to persuade the leaders of the two sides to come together and, it was assumed, listen to what each other had to say. For years before the secret meetings between Israelis and Palestinians that presaged the Oslo Accords in 1992, the Camp David summit between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978 was held up as a symbol of what was possible. Now, as all involved prepare for a summit that the US hopes to host in Annapolis, Minnesota, later this year, it all seems rather familiar, as though we are going through the motions of a game we have played before, with no-one very optimistic that the result will be any different this time around.
The Annapolis summit is not unexpected, of course. Rather, if and when it takes place (and it may well be postponed or downgraded to a lesser importance if the US and Israel decide that they need more time to guarantee the outcome they want), it will be the culmination of a long preparatory process that the US and Israel have been planning and working towards arguably since before the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004, all the political vicissitudes of the three years since notwithstanding. Arafat himself took part in the last summit of this scale, at Camp David in July 2000, after which he was blamed for refusing to acceptIsrael’s supposedly generous terms, and sidelined as a potential “partner for peace”. Now, after years of training and softening up, Mahmoud Abbas is being offered the chance to accept the role that Arafat refused to play, as a statesman and hero in the eyes of the West and as a traitor in the eyes of Palestinians and Muslims.
The outcome that the US and Israel want is of course a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on their terms. It is incredibly frustrating for them that they appear to have won the war by every measurable standard, and yet their victory cannot be confirmed because the Palestinians refuse to surrender, however battered and bloody they may be. The outline of the solution that they want is well established: for Israel to remain the ruling power over the whole of Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital, sole control over the area’s borders and economy, and the military power and legal right to impose its will anywhere in the territory as and when it pleases; while the Palestinians govern themselves in Bantustan-like areas under Israel’s overlordship, which Israel will allow them to call a “state”, with state-like institutions such as a “president” and “security forces” which will only be used against other Palestinians, but which will have in reality little more freedom or independence from Israeli overlordship than a municipal authority has in other countries from the national government.
This is what Arafat could not accept in 2000, and his punishment was to be vilified and persecuted by the West, going from man of peace to tyrant and dictator at a single stroke, to the extent that his death was openly celebrated by many. The intervening years have seen massive changes in Palestine, most notably the rise of Hamas, culminating with their parliamentary election victory in January 2006. Throughout, however, the US-Israeli object and strategy has remained the same: the bolstering of Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, as a reasonable Palestinian leader who could deliver peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike. At the same time they have targeted Hamas and Ghazzah, a Hamas stronghold, to demonstrate the possible consequences to the Palestinians of refusing to accept their allotted place in the US-Israeli scheme, hence the “withdrawal” from Ghazzah last year and the economic blockade that has reduced its people to near-starvation with hardly a protest from anyone in either the West or the Muslim world.
In recent months the preparations for another “final settlement” conference have been stepped up, with various American and Israeli leaders, and their allies, talking up the prospects of peace. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Egypt, Israel andPalestine last month was a part of this process. Speaking at a press conference in Ramallah after a meeting with Abbas on October 15, she said that the Bush administration was committed to reaching a two-state solution. “Frankly, it is time for the establishment of a Palestinian state”, and that a two-state solution was “absolutely essential for the future, not just of Palestinians and Israelis, but for the Middle East and indeed for American interests.”
Former British prime minister Tony Blair -- a newcomer to this process, having been appointed as special envoy of the international quartet on the Middle East only after he left office in London in June, but a long-serving aide to George W. Bush -- played his part on October 17, when he published a plan for the reform of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that shows the West’s intentions for the Palestinian state and caused widespread shock among Palestinians. Blair’s plan focuses on the administrative reform of security agencies in order to make them more effective in fighting internal opposition and militant resistance movements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The plan’s introduction made clear that any future settlement depends on Abbas demonstrating his ability and willingness to suppress resistance groups. It also called for greater powers for European and American “consultants” who are advising and helping the Palestinian security agencies, and for the establishment of an international committee to oversee the implementation of the plan. This committee would include Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak, making absolutely clear Blair’s vision of Palestine as subordinate to Israel and the fact that his plan is primarily designed to promote Israel’s interests. By contrast, the only demand made of Israel in the plan is that it ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank so they can feel a “positive change” in their standard of life.
Even Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert joined the talking up of the process, saying on October 15 that “legitimate questions” could be asked about the Israeli annexation of Palestinian districts in East Jerusalem after the 1967 war: a clear attempt to appear willing to listen to Palestinian grievances and concerns. Considering, however, that his government has actually done relatively little to ease the pressure on Palestinians in the West Bank, despite being committed to helping Abbas bolster his position, and that Israel has recently further expanded its settlements around Jerusalem as part of its strategy of creating “new realities on the ground” before any peace talks, such statements can safely be dismissed as meaning even less than usual.
Whether and when the summit will go ahead remains uncertain. The timing of this push for a final settlement is being determined primarily by two factors: Bush’s desire to achieve some sort of settlement before he leaves office, to balance his failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a general awareness that the current degree of pressure on the Palestinians cannot be maintained for long without the risk of some major reaction from either Hamas or the Palestinian people that would derail the process. However, Rice’s four days of shuttle diplomacy in the region apparently failed to agree the terms for the conference, with Abbas reportedly demanding that a text for discussion be agreed before the conference takes place (in order to avoid being ambushed as Arafat was in 2000), and Olmert insisting that no text is necessary, presumably in order to be able to ambush Abbas, with of course the full support of Bush and other parties at the conference.
The powers overseeing the process may decide that more time is needed to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved. And if they feel that the Palestinian surrender cannot be achieved at this time, and that more preparatory work is needed, the summit may be downgraded or cancelled altogether. However, one thing they must be well aware of, given the Palestinians’ record of steadfast resistance despite everything that they have been subjected to in recent decades, is that even a final settlement will only be as final as the Palestinian people allow it to be. A settlement imposed on Abbas will not necessarily be accepted by the Palestinian people or the leaders who truly represent their wishes and aspirations, in which case it would do little more than change the context in which the Palestinians pursue their struggle.