There used to be an Arab communist party that included in all its statements the phrase “the latest developments have proved our expectations right”. The party perceived of itself as capable of knowing about all new issues and of protecting itself from any political surprise regardless of its source. For decades, developments used to run in diametrical opposition to the party’s wishes, as the “imperial force” advanced and consolidated its position on the world’s map, whereas the communist camp witnessed a continuous deterioration, first in the Arab world and culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, the big ally of the Arab communist party. Nevertheless, this reality did not prevent the party to hold on to its favourite phrase – nothing in the world, so the suggestion, could catch it unawares.
The paradox lies in the fact that even the collapse of the Communist camp did not take the party by surprise. Assuming that this was true, the question the party had to tackle should have been: How can such an outcome be averted? In other words, negative expectations should be met with political action suited to prevent them from materialising – meaning, the merit is rather in the inaccuracy of expectations than in their accuracy, or in the capability of reacting in such a way to a correct analysis that its conclusions do not occur.
This example might serve as a guideline when it comes to evaluating the accuracy of Arab analysts, including the writer of these words. Most analysts in the Arab world predicted that the Annapolis conference, held on 27 November, 2007, would not bring about change. Yet neither they, nor the respective Arab political bodies had the capability to counteract the correctness of their expectations in order to make the conference’s results conform to Arab and Palestinian interests (which, of course, would have proven their predictions wrong).
In the event, the conference confirmed the prophecies of most political analysts and observers. It was a media festival saving the face of a US administration that had neglected the Arab-Israeli conflict since 2001, a neglect that had increased the complexity of the situation in the Palestinian territories and fuelled tensions all over the region. In addition, there was the joint Israeli-Palestinian statement and Israel’s commitment to abstain from expanding its settlements. Only ten days later this was nullified by the Israeli announcement that further residential construction in Jerusalem was to go ahead – this in clear contradiction to Israel’s promise to freeze settlement activities in the West Bank.
If to this one were to add further incidents, such as, on the one hand, the construction of three hundred residential units in Har Huma (Abu Ghnaim), the continuous Israeli attacks on Gaza that last week alone led to the killing of approximately twenty Palestinians, the escalating Israeli pressure on Gaza by cutting fuel supplies, and the continuous threat to invade the densely populated area, and, on the other hand, the failure of the Palestinian authority to influence the course of events in Gaza and the still deeply divided Palestinian camp, the observer could easily add another expectation needless of wit: The coming rounds of negotiations are doomed to fail.
Yet, such a prediction should not reduce the importance of one question that seems central to us: Can the weak achieve peace? It is needless to say that each of the three leaders involved, Ehud Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas, and George Bush, are weak in their own way. All three of them have a narrow margin of action vis-à-vis other domestic political forces as well as in relation to each other. Each of the three presidents has problems that, most likely, will become even graver in the near future. President Bush’s term in office is nearing its end and US voters seem to be siding with his Democrat foes enemies; Olmert is still being rattled by the repercussions of Israel’s war against Lebanon and his position is threatened by the Winograd report and a number of corruption cases; and the Palestinian leadership is paralysed by internal struggles and the absence of a general national plan to put an end to occupation.
On other fronts, nothing much seems to have taken place. Possibly the only exception is the attendance of a Syrian representative at Annapolis. This, it is thought, came about because of pressure put on Damascus by moderate Arab states, and after the latter negotiated with Iran. At the conference no commitment was made to negotiate independently on Syrian-Israeli and Lebanese-Israeli issues; most likely these questions will soon face the same obstacles surrounding the Palestinian ones. Many observers do speak of an American-Syrian rapprochement. Yet, the fact that communication channels between Washington and Damascus have been re-opened does not mean that the Syrian-Israeli negotiations have been resurrected. The US and Syria alike devote more attention to issues such as the situation in Lebanon and in Iraq. Against this background, it might be justified to view the Syrian participation in the Annapolis conference as an exchange of good intentions. The essence of Syrian-Israeli issues, though, i.e. an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the signing of a peace agreement between the two sides was not high on the agenda.
Consequently, and in the light of the new Israeli settlement plan, it was not difficult to predict that the conference would reach only very modest aims. The actual outcome presented not even a minimum level of cohesion in front of the harsh tests the Middle East is and will be continually exposed to.
Houssam Itani is opinion editor of the Lebanese Daily Al-Safir.