Commentary

There is one thing certain about the international (or regional or bilateral) Middle East peace conference (or meeting or get-together) called by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (or George Bush or Elliott Abrams) for November (or maybe December): it’s going to be held in Annapolis, Md. (probably).

Rice’s sudden renewal of interest in and commitment to a new Middle East “peace process” has two main goals: buying support from Arab regimes for Washington’s war in Iraq and escalating threats against Iran, and providing a photo-op to restore Rice’s tarnished legacy.

The agenda for the talks has not yet been finalized, but it will not include the goal of reversing Israeli occupation and dispossession and ending Israel’s discriminatory apartheid policies.

Because of U.S.-Israeli control of the agenda, “success” in Annapolis will depend on whether the Palestinian leadership can be coerced to sign on to a U.S.-Israeli text that many Palestinians will view as further abandonment of Palestinian national goals, and many in international civil society will see as violations of international law and human rights. There are serious questions whether the meeting as currently envisioned will be convened at all because of Palestinian refusal to accept U.S.-backed Israeli preconditions.

With the U.S.-Israeli-led international boycott remaining intact, the conference is unlikely to lead to any even short-term improvement in the humanitarian crisis exploding across Gaza.

To elaborate:

There is serious doubt about even the official viability of the conference. Ten days from the anticipated opening, invitations have not been issued (because Arab governments and even the Palestinian leadership have not so far agreed to U.S.-Israeli terms), an agenda has not been announced, and no preliminary statement of goals and/or principles has been agreed to. Palestinian officials have so far — at least publicly — rejected at least some of Israel’s preconditions.

Besides her urgent need to update her legacy (which is currently that of the person who stood before the world at the United Nations and announced “we don’t want a ceasefire yet” as Israeli jets bombarded Lebanon in summer 2006), Secretary Rice urgently needs to win flagging Arab government support for the Bush administration’s failing war and occupation in Iraq and its escalating mobilization against Iran.

While most Arab governments remain quite happy to join the U.S. crusade, their people do not share support for the occupation of Iraq or for the anti-Iranian fervor now ascendant in Washington. As a result, the unpopular and often unstable Arab regimes (absolute monarchies, family dynasties and military regimes masquerading as democracies) must provide some kind of concession for the Arab rulers to pacify their restive populations.

The latest version is to offer a high-profile (however low the results) diplomatic show aimed at allowing Arab governments to announce that the U.S. is now helping to give the Palestinians a state. As The New York Times described it, “Now the United States is mired in Iraq and looking for a way to build good will among Arab allies.”

The Bush administration apparently anticipated that Arab governments, at the highest levels, would welcome invitations to Annapolis. But so far, even Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab governments with full diplomatic relations with Israel, have hesitated, and Saudi Arabia has remained unconvinced. Even if the Arab governments agree to participate, they may send low- to mid-level officials, without the political clout — and photo-op value — of kings and prime ministers.

The stated U.S. goal for the Annapolis meeting is to realize a two-state solution. But in fact, if the conference takes place at all, the result will be to continue the approach of the long-moribund 2003 “Roadmap to Peace.” It will, at most, provide a high-visibility launch of a new edition of the same Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that has failed so many times before: a process based on acceptance of Israeli dominance over Palestinian lives and territory.

Its real goal will be to create something that the U.S. can anoint as an “independent Palestinian state,” while leaving largely unchallenged Israeli strategic, military, and economic domination over the entire area of Israel-Palestine.

The meeting’s agenda will not be based on what international law, as well as Palestinian and global public opinion, requires for a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement of the conflict: an end to Israeli occupation and settlement projects, realization of the Palestinians’ rights of self-determination and return, and an end to Israeli discrimination and apartheid policies.

If the U.S.-Israeli goals for Annapolis are realized, they would probably lead to the following “two-state solution” results:

Borders
A Palestinian “state” would be announced on a series of non-contiguous truncated Bantustan-like cantons comprising something less than 50 percent of the West Bank plus Gaza. Israel might, with great fanfare, charitably “adjust” very slightly the current route of the Apartheid Wall to seize slightly less land that the current route (which Israeli Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni earlier announced would be the basis for any border). All of the West Bank’s major water aquifers will remain on the Israeli side of the wall.

Settlements
All the major West Bank settlement blocs would remain intact on the Israeli side of the wall, leaving between 180,000 and 200,000 of the current 250,000 West Bank settlers in place. With great fanfare, most of the 105 small symbolic “outpost” settlements constructed since 2001, which together house only about 2,000 settlers, will be dismantled. The entire Jordan Valley would remain in Israeli hands. In exchange, Palestinians would be offered a “land swap” which would almost certainly involve a significantly smaller amount of land, of far less arability and viability.

Refugees
The Palestinian right of return, codified not only in general international law but specifically in UN Resolution 194 (1949), has already been officially rejected by Israel but also by the United States, in the Bush-Sharon letter exchange of April 2004. Israel’s Annapolis agenda plans to reassert that rejection though a demand that the Palestinians accept language recognizing the “Jewish character” of Israel, or accepting the definition of Israel as “the state of the Jewish people” as opposed to a state of its own citizens.

So far Palestinian officials have indicated they will not accept that language, which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says is a precondition to any negotiations. The rejection of the right of return will be further entrenched by an Israeli “offer” to Palestinian refugees the privilege of “returning” to the erstwhile new “Palestinian state,” rather than the right to return to their actual home territory inside what is now Israel.

Jerusalem
International law (UN Security Council Resolution 181, which divided Palestine into what was supposed to become a Jewish and an Arab state) calls for Jerusalem to belong to neither state, but rather to be a “separate body” under international jurisdiction. Virtually no governments (not even the U.S.) recognize Israel’s annexation of occupied Arab East Jerusalem, and numerous UN resolutions have reaffirmed that East Jerusalem is occupied territory.

The Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem (known as neighborhoods, not settlements) include over 200,000 Israeli settlers, and they will remain in Israeli hands. The Israeli position in Annapolis will call for continuing Israeli control of all of Jerusalem, with some kind of Israeli-controlled “autonomy” for Palestinian neighborhoods and parts of the Old City’s Muslim shrines.

Other implications
If the U.S.-Israeli agenda for Annapolis succeeds with an official Palestinian imprimatur, the already reduced legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority could diminish further, and the existing Palestinian political crisis, especially the Fatah-Hamas divide, could be seriously exacerbated.

It is important to remember that that the U.S. as well as Israel bears significant responsibility for the divisions, tensions and violence inside the Palestinian polity. In his leaked confidential report, former UN representative to the so-called Quartet, Peruvian diplomat Alvaro de Soto stated directly that “the U.S. clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas — so much so that, a week before Mecca [the Saudi-brokered unity agreement between the two factions], the U.S. envoy declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington how much ‘I like this violence,’ referring to the near-civil-war that was erupting in Gaza, in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because ‘it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.’”

The talks in Annapolis will likely not even address the current humanitarian (as well as political) crisis currently ravaging the 1.6 million people of Gaza. The U.S.-Israeli-led international boycott of Gaza, as well as Israel’s designation of Gaza as an “enemy entity” will remain in place.

Israel’s restrictions on the supply of fuel and electricity to Gaza have already began to bite; with electricity supplies down the availability of fresh water is diminishing, and the declining stocks of transport fuel are expected to reach crisis point some time in the next few days. New U.S. aid to the Palestinians recently proposed by the Bush administration remains stalled in Congress pending “success” at Annapolis; in any case, that aid is almost entirely limited to support, especially military/security assistance, for the Fatah-led government in Ramallah, with virtually nothing designated for the desperately impoverished Gaza Strip.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and serves on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation. She is author of “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.” This article was prepared as a “Talking Points” item for United for Peace and Justice and was originally published on Nov. 17.

***

The following fact sheet was prepared by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (www.endtheoccupation.org).

The Annapolis conference: toward a just Israeli-Palestinian peace — or apartheid?

On Nov. 26, the United States is scheduled to convene an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis, Md. This U.S. attempt at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is the highest-level effort made since the final collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2001.

Given the sustained U.S. diplomatic efforts that have gone into convening this conference and its potential to reframe public discourse in the United States about Israel/Palestine, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has put together this fact sheet to raise critical questions for the public and for policy makers, the answers to which will determine if this conference will be successful.

Is the United States willing to be an ‘honest broker’?

Previous U.S. attempts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking have foundered because the United States has failed to act as “honest broker.” The United States cannot simultaneously provide Israel with uncritical military and diplomatic support and function as an even-handed mediator.

Moreover, the Annapolis conference comes just three months after the United States and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding for an additional $30 billion in U.S. military aid for Israel over the next 10 years. This proposed increase in military aid for Israel comes despite clear and ongoing Israeli violations of the U.S. Arms Export Control and Foreign Assistance Acts.

The United States has an obligation under domestic law to sanction Israel for its continued misuse of U.S. arms. It also has an obligation to follow the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, which ruled that no country can “render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created” by Israel’s construction of an illegal wall in the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

Will the conference manage Israel’s occupation or aim to resolve core issues?

If recent history is a guide, the conference will do little more than try to buy time for Israel to complete its colonization of West Bank land. Rather than ending Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestinian territory, the Oslo peace process sought to create mechanisms to better manage occupation while Israel doubled the number of its settlers.

The peace process shifted the burdens of military occupation from Israel, as required by the Fourth Geneva Convention, to a powerless Palestinian Authority, creating the illusion that Palestinians were now a self-governing people with functioning, sovereign institutions. In reality, the Oslo peace process provided Israel with an opportunity to deepen and entrench its military occupation of Palestinian lands.

Unfortunately, a recent bipartisan letter from members of Congress to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reveals that the likely agenda for the Annapolis conference again will deal with managing the humanitarian catastrophe created by Israel’s military occupation and siege policies, rather than ending these policies. The letter, written by Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Charles Boustany (R-La.), speaks of new U.S. assistance programs because “the immediate needs of the Palestinian people are for clean government, public order, economic opportunity and salaried employment.”

Increased U.S. humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people cannot replace core issues such as ending Israel’s occupation, the status of Jerusalem, guaranteeing Palestinian refugees their right of return, and Palestinian self-determination.

Is the envisioned peace based on human rights and international law or on the consolidation of Israeli apartheid?

For a just and lasting peace to be established, the United States and Israel must recognize Palestinian individual and collective human rights guaranteed under international law. These rights include ending Israel’s illegal military occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties, the right of Palestinian citizens in Israel to full equality, and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. Anything less than the acknowledgment and implementation of these rights will perpetuate Israel’s system of apartheid rule over the Palestinian people and fail to bring about a just and lasting peace.

What actions can we take?

Many well-meaning people and organizations made a fateful decision to demobilize their civil society efforts to achieve a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace when the Oslo peace process was launched in 1993. Many assumed mistakenly that official negotiations were all that was then needed to bring about a just and lasting peace.

We should have learned from that mistake and not repeat it again. Now is the time to launch public awareness and corporate accountability campaigns, including campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and corporations that profit from its human rights violations. Now is the time to continue to pressure our decision makers to insist that the United States truly become an “honest broker” and uphold the tenets of human rights, international law, and equality for all as our country’s policy toward Israel/Palestine.

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