Representatives of 50 nations and hundreds of reporters from around the world converged on the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, this Tuesday to attend the much-hyped, one-day summit on the Middle East. After exhaustive security checks, the reporters were ushered into the academy’s basketball stadium. From that uninviting vantage point -- only an elite few reporters were allowed anywhere near the participating leaders -- the press corps watched as President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas exchanged platitudes of peace.
Although the summit was billed as the start of a new negotiation process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it felt dated from the onset. For instance, President Bush invoked the “road map” of April 30, 2003, specifically mentioning that precise date, as the guiding spirit of the negotiations. But on May 25, 2003, Israel added 14 reservations to the road map, almost all of which demanded that the Palestinian Authority take full responsibility to disarm all terror groups before proceeding with negotiations. By adverting to the April 30 proposal, Bush seemed to be ignoring the Israeli government’s demands and asking that Israel negotiate with the Palestinians, come what may.
To clarify whether this was indeed the case, this reporter asked State Department officials whether Abbas would be required to disarm and disband the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terrorist organization that remains an integral part of the Fatah. The Al Aqsa Brigades remain on the US State Department list of terrorist organizations and continue to commit terrorism against Israel. Nonetheless, officials would not answer the question. In a similar vein, State Department officials were asked about their position concerning the Palestinian curriculum, which the Israel Ministry of Defense had concluded is rife with anti-Semitic incitement and in which Israel is erased from the map, thus denying any connection of Jews or Judaism to the land of Israel. After looking into the matter, the officials refused to take a stand on the issue.
Indeed, about the only thing that American officials would take a stand on is that negotiations must proceed apace -- even if the Palestinian side has failed to do the one thing asked of it by curbing anti-Israel terrorism. Thus President Bush set the tone for this week’s negotiations by saying that Abbas and Olmert would conduct biweekly negotiations beginning on December 12. In the case of disputes, President Bush declared, the US would be the “judge” as to whom was correct. But considering that U.S. officials have pointedly declined to offer an opinion on Palestinian terrorism this week, this was not exactly reassuring.
The Palestinian side has been more forthcoming. On November 23, the Palestinian Authority’s official radio outlet, “Voice of Palestine” radio, launched a preemptive attack on Israel ahead of this week’s summit. A cleric chosen by the PA declared that one of the main “obstacles in the negotiations prior to the conference” was Israel’s request to be recognized as a Jewish state. “If this request is granted and Israel is recognized as a Jewish state there will be no withdrawal to 1967 boarders, no partition of Jerusalem and no deportation of the Israeli settlers.” In short, Palestinians could not accept Israel because to do would be to accept Israel’s right to exist. For the Palestinian leadership, such recognition -- the first step to any peace process -- is unthinkable.
Prime Minister Olmert, to his credit, stated before the summit that he would stand by the principle that Israel is a Jewish state. In response to the PA’s extremist rhetoric, he called for two states, for two peoples. But nothing at this week’s summit suggested that this vision is any closer to becoming a reality.