Delegates from over forty countries, including Syria, are expected to gather in Annapolis, Maryland, Tuesday to participate in a US-sponsored Middle East summit. We speak with Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. [includes rush transcript]
Leaders from around the world will gather in Annapolis, Maryland, Tuesday to participate in US-sponsored Middle East peace talks. President Bush called for the international meeting in July of 2007 to advance stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Delegates from over forty countries, including Syria, are expected to attend the one-day summit. Hamas was not invited.
A final agenda has yet to been drawn up, but a draft of a joint document was leaked to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It makes no mention of the situation in Gaza, nor of core issues like settlements, borders, the separation wall, Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.
Israeli and Palestinian officials arrived in Washington, D.C. over the weekend and said Sunday that the meeting would be an important starting point in strengthening dialogue and isolating "extremists" like Hamas.
Saeb Erekat, the advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the summit could mark an important turning point in the region.
SAEB EREKAT: Today, it’s a critical juncture in the Middle East. Either we go the path of peace, stability, moderation, or we go on the path of extremism, deterioration, bloodshed, violence, and counter- violence. The key is in Annapolis.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the follow-up to the summit would be crucial.
MARK REGEV: I think the test of Annapolis is not only to have a good meeting, but it’s in what happens in the weeks and the months following Annapolis. And what we’re hopeful for is coming out of this meeting with an energized dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians on the core issues.
US officials also asserted the meeting is a chance to launch dialogue and not a renegotiating session on key issues.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, where she focuses on US Middle East policy. Her most recent book is Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. She joins us now from Washington, D.C.
Phyllis Bennis, what do you expect to happen at this summit?
Very little, Amy. I think there has been a great successful effort at tamping down expectations. But what has not been clarified is that the real goal of these meetings also have very little to do with actually reaching a just and comprehensive and lasting peace, which of course requires ending Israeli occupation and ending Israel’s policies of apartheid and discrimination.
There are two real goals for this meeting; neither of them have really anything to do with Palestinian rights, a Palestinian state, Israeli security or anything else. They are, number one, to shore up Arab States’ support for the US crusades against Iran and Iraq in the region, and, two, to rebuild Condoleezza Rice’s legacy, which right now is grounded in her being the person who stood before the world in the summer of 2006, as Israeli bombs were devastating Lebanon, and said, “We don’t need a ceasefire yet.” She wants to change that. That’s a huge part of why this meeting is going forward.
What about the countries who are coming and who are not coming? We surprised, for example, by Syria?
Well, the question of whether Syria would participate has been an on-again/off-again question for some time, and it remains, frankly, uncertain what role they will actually play. Syria is not sending their foreign minister, as the other Arab regimes are. They’re sending a deputy foreign minister, a deliberate statement that this is not quite full participation.
The Syrians had said that they would not participate unless the issue of Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967 at the same time that it occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; as long as that was on the agenda, they would agree to participate. They now say that is on the agenda. US officials don’t say that. US officials say that any country who comes is welcome to raise whatever they want and, quote, "We won’t turn off the microphone.” That’s very different than saying that it is on the agenda. So, we don’t actually know whether or not there is going to be any opportunity for discussion of the Golan Heights beyond whatever speech, whatever formal speech, the Syrian deputy foreign minister might give.
And what about the exclusion of Hamas?
Well, this has been known from the very beginning. The basis of this conference is grounded in the division within the Palestinian polity, the divide between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank led by Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas-led government in Gaza.
The fiction that exists at this point is that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is not representing the Palestinian Authority, but rather representing the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella organization, which does in fact represent all Palestinians. This is the same double role or double position that Mahmoud Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, played. He was both the head of the PLO and the president of the Palestinian Authority. The difference, of course, is that Yasser Arafat, despite widespread dissatisfaction with many of his policies, was massively recognized as the representative, the legitimate symbol and political representative, of the entire Palestinian nation. That is not true of Mahmoud Abbas. There is enormous opposition to him. The PLO has not been functioning as an independent organization.
So, this sort of claim that Mahmoud Abbas is there not as the head of the PA, but rather as the head of the PLO, isn’t convincing Palestinians. And as a result, we see in the latest Palestinian poll concluded just yesterday 62% of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories expect failure from the talks in Annapolis. 47% believe that nothing will change as a result of these talks, despite the fact that 70% agree with holding peace talks. They just want peace talks that are really aimed at dealing with the serious core issues, not peace talks that are designed to be a photo op.
And how much territory does Mahmoud Abbas control?
In fact, he doesn’t control any territory. He is the elected president in the West Bank, but the Israeli military is still very completely in control of that territory, as well as that of East Jerusalem and Gaza. So, in fact, he doesn’t control the territory at all. He is the Authority’s elected leader. But the Authority is governing crumbs, if you will, while the Israelis maintain control of the whole loaf.
The question that remains is how far is Mahmoud Abbas and his team prepared to go to make additional concessions in the name of the Palestinians, whether on issues of territory, particularly the question of settlements and most importantly, I think for many Palestinians, the question of the right of return. There have been claims from the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he would not negotiate with anyone, including Mahmoud Abbas, who did not agree as a precondition to accept, in Israel’s words, "Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and as a state of all the Jewish people," meaning, Amy, that Jews like you and I, who have no ties in Israel, would have more rights permanently as quasi-citizens of Israel than the Palestinians who were expelled from the territory that is now Israel back in 1947 and ’48, that there would be no right of return, except to a putative Palestinian state that might be assembled out of some disconnected Bantustans in parts of the West Bank. That’s the proposal of the Israelis.
The US has agreed to that territorial approach, that the right of return would not apply, that Palestinians would be allowed to return, quote, "only to the new Palestinian state,” even if that was not their former homeland. Whether Mahmoud Abbas will, in fact, say those words, endorse that position, remains uncertain. Most Palestinians have said, he could not do that and survive as a political leader. Saeb Erekat, who we just heard from a moment ago, has said that the Palestinians will not accept the Israeli definition of Israel as a Jewish state and the state of the entire Jewish people, as opposed to being the state of all its citizens, including of course the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. Whether that will, in fact, prevail as the official Palestinian position, we simply don’t know yet.
And two other questions about Lebanon and Iran. Lebanon, the fact that it doesn’t have a president right now, how will this play? And, of course, Iran — here you have this gathering, mainly of Middle East leaders; what is the US pushing around Iran?
Well, on the question of Lebanon, the political crisis is very strong. There is no agreement yet on — between the two almost-equal factions in the government about how to choose the successor to President Lahoud, who just resigned at the end of his term. There are new negotiations scheduled for this coming weekend. But it does mean that Lebanon, even if other parties are discussing it — for example, the Syrians or the Israelis — the Lebanese are not in a position to play much of a role at this conference. I assume they will send an official delegation, but it will be understood that it will not be a delegation that is authorized to speak in any definitive way.
The question of Iran, of course, is very central. Even European diplomats, even the Israeli Meretz Party and many others around the world, are acknowledging that this summit has more to do with Iran than it does with the Palestinians. This is a summit designed to shore up Arab States’ support for the US escalations against Iran. This is a situation in which most Arab regimes would be only too happy to jump into the US — to jump into bed with the US in attacking Iran. The problem is that the Arab people in all those Arab countries are not so keen on that, do not see Iran as a major enemy. So, in order to gain political credibility at home and avoid being overthrown, in some cases, those governments need to be able to give their people something. The US is essentially throwing them a bone, saying, “Here, give your people this, so that you can come onboard our anti-Iran crusade and stay onboard our war in Iraq.” The bone they are throwing to the Arab regimes is this photo op in Annapolis.
Phyllis Bennis, I want to thank you for being with us, fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Her latest book is called Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We will certainly follow what takes place tomorrow in Annapolis.