After Annapolis… the burden of proof.

After Annapolis… the burden of proof.

middle_east_annapolisNobody but the ruggedly optimistic, or those who rarely venture beyond a cursory glance of the headlines believe that anything good will come out of yet another stab at forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a pessimism that’s shared both by professional observers and the proverbial man in the street. News reports on the Annapolis conference are cautious and often include long lists of failed attempts at peace that blot the tumultuous past of the Middle East as well as future pitfalls. Indeed the very word “conference” is eschewed, in favor of more down to earth, expectation-lowering terms as parley or get-together.

The lack of large popular demonstrations in favor or against, save perhaps the orchestration of defiance set up by Hamas in the breakaway Gaza strip, indicate a general indifference and a sense that what matters is what can be seen and observed in people’s daily lives, which at this point means; very little. Indeed, a glimpse at past efforts bodes ill for what’s to come. The famous Oslo years offered Palestinians a doubling of the number of Israeli settlers in the area earmarked for a future state, while Israeli cities were clobbered with a series of gruesome suicide bombings on busses and restaurants. On the heels of Clinton’s failed peace efforts at Camp David in 2000 came a new Intifada, killing more than a thousand Israelis and over three thousand Palestinians.

Why, one asks, should Condoleeza Rice’s frantic shuttling and a few handshakes at an American naval academy prove any different? After all, the agreed timetable of about a year in which final status accords are to be reached offers, in domestic political terms, a far-off horizon that few of the current players are deemed very likely to ride off into.

The Israeli prime minister presides over an unruly, shaky coalition whose partners threaten to bolt at the merest whiff of suppleness toward the Palestinians. The Palestinian president is beleaguered by the fact that one-third of the population that elected him is governed de facto independently by the rival Hamas movement. His western-supported attempts to establish in the West Bank a semblance of law and order, and thus comply with the first stage of the much-vaunted Roadmap are impaired by continued Israeli arrest raids and extra-judicial killings in Palestinian cities and villages.

American foreign policy under the Bush administration has held a middle ground between trial, error, and downright frothing-at-the-mouth disaster. On a fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction American troops, along with a token coalition of contributing countries, invaded and occupied Iraq. Four years later, after much bloodletting, little headway has been made in turning this country into the beacon of democracy and prosperity that would enthuse the whole region to change its path toward a future that’s more democratic, more prosperous, and less prone to seedbed Islamic militancy of the kind that wreaked havoc one sunny morning in September of 2001.

While the administration stumbled from crisis to crisis in Iraq, little energy, and indeed little interest remained for the festering conflict in the Holy land. Meanwhile, under the confrontational leadership of president Ahmadinejad, Iran has positioned itself as another kind of beacon, a counter-pole to American leadership in the region, and a perceived destabilizing vector for dissatisfied Shi’ite minorities ruled by America’s Suni allies. Many interpret America’s changed attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a last straw to engender goodwill in the region in order to help contain the alleged Iranian threat.

The shift, increasingly apparent over the past twelve months, is not wholeheartedly supported by the entire administration. However, opponents of close engagement seem for the moment outgunned by among others, secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a recent but energetic convert to a more hands-on approach. As mentioned, a lot can happen in a year, but her close relationship to president Bush is likely to keep American policy on its current course with the proclaimed goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the very near future.

Some tough choices will have to be made by the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Neither seems at this point to possess sufficient political capital to push an unpalatable compromise through a referendum or a general election disguised as one. Israelis will have to accept sharing Jerusalem rather than ceding just a few outlying suburbs, while Palestinians, following the logic of a two-state solution, need to realize the impossibility of a full-scale return of all refugees to their houses and lands in Israel.

Recognition of the Jewish nature of the Israeli state in the context of a peace deal should not and cannot signify forfeiting demands for equal rights of Palestinian and other minorities within Israel. In fact, the existence of a viable and democratic Palestinian state, along with comprehensive peace moves in the wider region is likely to produce an atmosphere within the Israeli society that will gradually become more congenial to a proper dialogue on legitimate grievances.

The dangers ahead are manifold, but failure, and this seems finally to dawn on Washington and European capitals, will likely lead to another round of violence; one that may draw in other countries of the region. Moreover, disenchantment with prior failed efforts and facts on the ground make a viable, contiguous Palestinian state require increasing leaps of the imagination. In such a scenario the scales might tip against a two-state solution altogether.

The limbo in which Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza have lived since 1967 can be solved by ceding these territories to an independent state, or alternatively, by granting them a franchise in the body that governs so many aspects of their lives; the Knesset. It goes without saying that such a move would in essence spell the end of the Jewish majority of Israel, and hence the Jewish state as such. One needs only to look at a map to understand how Israeli settlement construction has turned the former solution into somewhat of a Herculean task.

What is merely daunting today, is likely to become impossible tomorrow. In this sense Annapolis might be the very last attempt at a two-state solution. Olmert has in recent statements more than hinted at exactly this. Concurrently, Palestinian public opinion seems to be drifting away from the two-state mantra. Although some might balk at the comparison, a South-Africa style civil rights struggle as a corollary of this trend is likely to resonate strong in global public opinion.

However, failure of the current talks, and a subsequent re-orientation of goals and tactics of both parties is bound to usher in a prolonged period of instability, exacting a cost in human suffering beyond anything the region has seen before. Wariness with regards to the Annapolis process is warranted, but the elements on either side working against it, could do worse than ponder the consequences of a debacle. Today, a two-state solution is difficult but still possible. With disenchantment running high on both sides, the burden of proof lies clearly with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, and their guarantors in Washington. Time is running out.


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