Now that the Annapolis conference has been held, two questions arise: What has been achieved, and what can we expect will be achieved in the months to come?
From an Israeli point of view, two things were achieved: There was no joint statement to bind them in any way to the results of the negotiations and no specific deadlines were set for the process that Annapolis was meant to launch. In addition, the US Administration saw to it that Arab foreign ministers were present, thus beginning a process of normalisation with Arab countries (other than Egypt and Jordan), without giving anything in return.
From a Palestinian point of view, the conference failed to achieve a clearly defined set of objectives or principles that could become the basis for negotiations, such as specific references to international resolutions, or even the “land for peace” formula of the Madrid conference. Prior to the conference, Mahmoud Abbas had worked hard to arrive at such a joint document but the Israelis would not budge.
The importance of such a document as the basis for negotiations is the main lesson Palestinians and others have learnt from the failure of the Camp David talks in July 2000. The Oslo process was open-ended since there was no agreement, not even a general outline, as to where the process was going. It is true that now, after Annapolis, the process is supposed to lead to a Palestinian State. But what a “state” means is clearly disputed. There is no agreement on borders, on sovereignty including water and other natural resources, on Jerusalem, or on refugees. The starting point of fruitful negotiations could have been, for instance, the point reached by both sides at Taba in Egypt, in January 2001. Now it appears that everyone is back to square one.
The danger, of course, is that Annapolis will turn into Oslo2, only seven years later. And it is all but clear whether there will be another process, should Annapolis break down after the upcoming US presidential elections. A process every seven years is hardly something to look forward to!
The Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Bush Administration all have a vested interest in keeping the negotiations going at least until the end of 2008. In an election year a resounding failure would be bad for the Republicans. The Israelis and the Palestinians will oblige, as they did at Annapolis, where neither side was keen on a high profile event, although for different reasons. The same is true for Arab states. They wanted the Arab Political Initiative, as approved at the last Arab League Conference in Saudi Arabia, to be the basis for negotiations. Yet they did oblige the US.
Still, one has to expect that during 2008 negotiations will stall at one point or another – thus necessitating US intervention. Such a scenario is not unduly pessimistic. One only has to remember the Road Map which, after being approved in 2003, was then quickly consigned to the dustbin – only to be resuscitated on the eve of the Annapolis Conference. The operative part is what the Israelis insist on. It calls for Palestinians to control security and to root out “terrorism”, in return for which the Israelis are supposed to halt building settlements and dismantle those not approved by the government of Israel.
It is instructive that President Bush, in his speech at the conference, referred to those two steps, yet he did not use the word “parallel”. This is precisely what happened during the Oslo process. Between 1996 and 1999 Arafat took tough action against Hamas, arresting and jailing many, including leaders, yet the settlement process continued. Indeed, it never stopped at any point before or after Oslo.
For the Annapolis process to have any chance for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US and EU will have to take both sides back to the points of agreement reached at Taba. Anything less than that will simply keep the conflict simmering – until the next round of violence.
George Giacaman is Director of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin) and a professor at Birzeit University. A collection of his writings about the second Intifada will be published in 2008.