As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators worked this week on a joint statement ahead of their upcoming Annapolis summit, the Arab League prepared to meet Friday in Cairo to discuss which if any of them would attend the meeting. And Israeli political observers scoffed at the whole thing.
“It’s a total waste of time,” said David Newman, a professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“This is all nonsense,” said Arnon Sofer of Haifa University, one of Israel’s leading demographers and the first to propose a separation barrier to prevent terrorist attacks.
The conference is being held, Newman insisted, because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to show the world that Israel cannot be accused of refusing to negotiate, and because President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “want the world to see that they are interested in giving public support” to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In a phone interview Tuesday from London where he is a visiting professor for the year, Newman added: “There is nothing serious or significant on the table, they can’t decide the date and don’t know what is on the agenda. Do you remember one summit meeting that was talked about for so long and people still don’t know where and when it will take place?”
He warned that unless Abbas returns from the Maryland meeting “with real benefits, it may weaken his position.” For all the talk ahead of the conference, he added, all that Abbas has secured was the promised release Monday of another 441 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails (in addition to about 350 already released) and an Israeli pledge to freeze settlement construction.
“Settlements have been frozen 20 times but they continue to expand,” Newman observed.
Several Israeli analysts view the summit as nothing more than a bid by Olmert to stay in office.
“This is a gift for him to survive,” said Sofer. “He wants to be the next Ben-Gurion and Rabin.”
But Sofer, who is also a terrorism expert, said he is convinced that it is “impossible to bridge the gap between Israel and the Palestinians. … Nothing will be able to move forward until [Palestinian] terrorism is stopped, and terror will exist here forever.”
On Monday night, a 29-year-old Israeli civilian, Ido Zuldan, was shot and killed as he drove toward the northern West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron. Authorities said gunmen in a passing car opened fire and sped off in the direction of nearby Palestinian towns. The Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade of Abbas’ Fatah Party claimed responsibility for the attack, which they said was to protest the summit. A Palestinian official insisted it was an isolated attack that should not undermine peace efforts.
Later Monday night, three Palestinians carrying rifles and grenades were caught trying to infiltrate Israel by scaling the Gaza fence near the Israeli moshav of Nativ Ha’asara. Two of them were shot and killed by Israeli security guards. The third man escaped, presumably back to the Gaza Strip. And authorities reported that at about the same time, two more Palestinian gunmen were shot and killed as they tried to reach the security fence in the southern Gaza Strip.
The drive-by shooting was “near our house,” said Ahuva Shilo, a spokeswoman for the Shomron Regional Council.
“Don’t you see the connection between the Annapolis meeting and the terror attacks?” she asked. “Terrorism has become worse, and it’s going to be worse.”
Meanwhile, Olmert met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday to try to win his support for the summit and emerged to say that he hoped a peace agreement could be worked out by the end of next year.
“He is trying to establish himself as a statesman who could actually make an historical breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians and maybe with other Arab states,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
He said the Annapolis meeting poses four major problems, namely that Olmert and Abbas are too weak to make “substantial compromises” needed for a breakthrough; there is a lack of definition over what it means for the Palestinians to fight terrorism, as called for in the road map for peace, and for Israel to freeze settlement activities; the faulty premise that a solution can be found for the West Bank without dealing with Hamas-controlled Gaza; and the notion that Abbas can deliver on stopping terrorism and not dialogue with Hamas.
These are demands that “most Palestinians do not support,” according to Meital.
He added that most Israelis see Olmert’s efforts as “trying to buy time in office; we are not stupid.”
But Yitzchak Reiter of the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said he believes Olmert is pushing for the talks because “international backing of Israeli policy is deteriorating.”
“Therefore, he believes something should be done — if not a breakthrough at least a general understanding and the setting of a political horizon for the Palestinians,” said Reiter, who also noted that “as long as there is a political process, the media will not attack him too strongly” regarding the three criminal investigations he faces.
The logic for a peace agreement now, Reiter said, is that the policy of the next U.S. administration is unknown, Abbas is a moderate leader, and the Iraq situation is unclear.
“Israel is interested in giving a state to the Palestinians where we have a partner and is seriously looking for a solution,” he concluded.
But Zalman Shoval, a senior member of the opposition Likud Party, said he foresees two possibilities emerging from the summit: either nothing will come of it or nothing good will come out of it from Israel’s point of view.”
Although he would not say the U.S. is leaning on Israel, Shoval said the administration “has made it very clear to Mr. Olmert that it expects him to support the Annapolis conference at least symbolically. And I’m not sure whether the U.S. is not going to expect Olmert to make all sorts of promises and commitments that in the long run could cost Israel dearly.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, cautioned, however, that much of what has transpired to date has been “smoke and mirrors and media manipulation because this is a media event.”