In all previous attempts at negotiations with Israel, Palestinians have never made any real breakthrough. Progress has only been made on procedural or superficial issues, even if expectations were always raised unreasonably high, which in turn created exaggerated hopes for the peace process. This has been the case since the Madrid peace conference and was true of the Oslo process. Throughout, the Palestinian position was in permanent retreat and concessions were offered Israel at no cost.
What is true of the past holds true for the present. When US President George W. Bush first announced his intention to convene an international meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian side was concerned about the lack of any clear agenda for the meeting, as well as the lack of substance and the absence of a list of invitees. The Palestinian side consequently insisted that the meeting should be preceded by agreement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides regarding how and when to tackle final status issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees.
Israel resisted this and insisted instead that nothing but a general declaration of principles could come from the meeting–now set to take place in Annapolis some time in late November–and that there could be no talk of specific content or any timetable. Slowly, but irresistibly, the Palestinian position changed. Today, Palestinian officials speak of agreement at the meeting on a general framework that will then be followed by negotiations on final status issues to be concluded no later than six months after the meeting. Indeed, beyond the talk of a six-month timetable, the Palestinian position has become the Israeli one, something that is glossed over with optimistic announcements about that point in the future after the Annapolis meeting.
It seems we have not learned our lessons.
What, after all, is the cause of this optimism? What has changed that has put the Palestinian side in a better position now than it was seven or 17 years ago? And if there is nothing that has changed for the better in our case, is it that Palestinian negotiators believe that the US or Israel are now, for their own internal reasons, ready to sign an agreement that respects Palestinian rights and demands?
Those who believe the time is ripe for Palestinians to conclude an agreement with Israel are deluded. On the ground, the Palestinian position is at its weakest. There is political as well as geographical division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Social and economic conditions are on the verge of collapse, the Israeli grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem is stronger and more draconian than ever while Arab and international support for Palestinians is dwindling. In view of that, how can Palestinians change the balance of power and squeeze anything successful from negotiations with Israel?
Some argue that the US administration has finally recognized the compelling necessity of resolving the Palestinian question. But this would be an enormous assumption. The current US administration is suffering severe domestic criticism over its war in Iraq and is stumbling through its remaining months in power. Furthermore, nothing indicates that the Bush administration’s unwavering support of Israel has changed. The White House may have recognized that it needs to reinvigorate the Palestinian-Israeli political process. It is clear, however, that it is neither willing nor capable of imposing a settlement, something Arab countries and Palestinians have long looked for. In truth, the Arab peace initiative would have constituted a shorter and easier path to achieve a political settlement. But one of the American aims in holding the Annapolis meeting is exactly to consign this initiative to the dustbin.
Some, meanwhile, see in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert someone willing to make unprecedented progress toward a just settlement. But Olmert is not only pressing full steam ahead with the construction of his Apartheid wall in the West Bank, he is also struggling, not only with the opposition but with his own party and his partners in the ruling coalition, to retain his tenuous hold on power. To survive, he might do well to resuscitate a negotiations process to distract his detractors, but is he really going to reach an agreement that meets Palestinian demands? And would he be able to push such an agreement through? Of course not. He has neither the power, the vision nor the intellect.
This is anything but a good time to pursue a final agreement with Israel, and the Palestinian side should not peddle false hope. Since negotiators have agreed to attend the Annapolis meeting unconditionally they should face the Palestinian people honestly and say that any negotiations now are undertaken on Israeli premises, i.e., that there can be no return to the 1967 borders, there can be no Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and there can be no return of refugees. Should Palestinians accept these terms, agreement is at hand. If not, we will see the start of yet another cycle of negotiations, propelling negotiators around the globe and onto endless satellite TV discussion programs.
For 15 years Palestinians have been pursuing the mirage of a negotiations process. Let us not this time kid ourselves into thinking it is any cause for optimism.