The 12 Myths of Annapolis
- Myth 1) The Annapolis meeting was designed to launch serious new negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that aimed at ending the occupation and producing a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the region based on a two-state solution.
In fact, the two main reasons for the conference had virtually nothing to do with Israel or Palestine. The real reasons for convening the conference were 1) to strengthen Arab government support for U.S. strategies in the Middle East, including the war in Iraq and particularly the escalation of pressure aimed at Iran. 2) To provide a photo-op to reframe Condoleezza Rice’s legacy, now largely shaped by her embrace of Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, to the legacy of a would-be peacemaker.
- Myth 2) The time is right for new talks because, as President Bush said, “Palestinians and Israelis have leaders who are determined to achieve peace.”
In fact, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are so weakened politically, so compromised as legitimate leaders and so unpopular among their own electorates, that they have little or no choice but to follow the demands of the White House. Both Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Abbas were democratically elected, but both of them were chosen as replacements for the powerful and popular icons of national symbolism they served.
Like his predecessor, Yasir Arafat, Abbas is simultaneously president of the Palestinian Authority and Chairman of the PLO; unlike Arafat, he is not viewed as a hero of the Palestinian national movement and a symbol of Palestinian unity. In his Annapolis speech Abbas mentioned key Palestinian national goals, including UN resolution 194 on the right of return, but his political weakness as well as his long-standing confidence in U.S. backing means he remains unable to insist on those rights; it is unclear whether he will ultimately agree to sign on to a “final” treaty denying key internationally-mandated Palestinian rights to return, to real independence in all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, to dismantling of the settlements, etc.
Olmert replaced the right-wing General Ariel Sharon, known as the Butcher of Beirut from his role in the Sabra/Shatila massacre of 1982 and a continuing hero of the Israeli right-wing, when Sharon fell into a coma in January 2006. Olmert’s poll numbers are in the low single digits, and an Israeli criminal court judge had to issue a special hold on Olmert’s anticipated indictment on corruption charges even as his plane was about to take off for Annapolis this week.
- Myth 3) The Annapolis conference will provide hope for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank so Hamas supporters will be won over to support Abbas and the new peace process.
The only reference to the continuing U.S.-Israeli boycott and isolation of Gaza that has turned the Gaza Strip into a humanitarian disaster, a huge Israeli-controlled prison with what the World Bank calculates at 87% of Gazans living below the poverty line, came from Abbas’ call “To my people and relatives in the Gaza Strip, you are at the core of my heart.” But even he had nothing to offer them beyond the assertion that “the hours of darkness will end in the face of your resolve and determination. For your insistence on the unity of our people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as one geographical political unit without any divergence, your suffering will end. Right and peace will prevail.” Olmert referred to Gaza only as a place of terrorism and kidnapping. Bush described Gaza as the place where freedom rises, as in “when liberty takes root on the Iraqi soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire millions across the Middle East who want their societies built on freedom and peace and hope.” [yes, that is the accurate quote.] But unfortunately Palestinian children can’t eat Freudian slips.
- Myth 4) U.S. presidential “engagement” in Middle East diplomacy is inherently useful; the problem so far has been Bush’s lack of engagement.
Since 1967 the U.S. has been way too engaged in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. The U.S. already provides almost $4 billion/year in economic and military aid to Israel, has just announced an additional new $30 billion gift of military aid to Israel over the next ten years, consistently uses its UN Security Council veto to protect Israel from being held accountable for its violations of international law (half of all U.S. vetoes cast since 1970), is providing $85 million in police/military assistance to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah while maintaining the devastating complete embargo and isolation of Gaza. That’s engagement. The U.S. needs to engage differently – not more.
- Myth 5) At Annapolis the U.S. appropriately recognizes Israel and the Palestinians as two equal players, with equal responsibility for the conflict and equal obligations to compromise.
This is not a conflict between equal players. The U.S. remains the key power. The “Joint Understanding” read by President Bush at Annapolis states, “implementation of the future peace treaty will be subject to the implementation of the road map, as judged by the United States.” In fact, even the road map’s “Quartet,” the diplomatic fiction that provided political cover for the U.S. by anointing Europe, Russia and the United Nations as back-up singers for Washington’s solo act, was abandoned in Annapolis.
Israel is the occupying power, maintaining its occupation of Palestinian land in violation of scores of UN resolutions calling for an immediate end to the occupation of all of the West Bank, all of Gaza and all of occupied East Jerusalem. Israel is required to abide by – not to negotiate, but to abide by – all the obligations the Geneva conventions and other international laws impose on occupying powers, including the absolute prohibition of settlements, prohibition against collective punishments, and more. The Palestinians are the occupied population, whose protection is the primary obligation of the occupying power and the international community. In 1988 Palestinians made the historic (though largely forgotten) compromise when they gave up their claim to and recognized Israel as a state in 78% of historic Palestine (when even the UN Partition Agreement only assigned Israel 55%). The idea that now Palestinians should be expected to negotiate away additional major pieces of the meager 22% of the land that remains, and compromise away their other inalienable rights to self-determination and return, makes a mockery of international law and the international community.
- Myth 6) The discussions in Annapolis prove that a “two state solution” remains the only possible and legitimate outcome.
Creation of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state – in all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – remains the mandate of the United Nations and international law, and the official Palestinian position. Formal support for creation of some kind of Palestinian state represents the official positions of Israel and the U.S., along with many other countries. But creation of a viable, contiguous and independent state in all the 1967 territory, as mandated by the UN and international law, would require the dismantling of huge blocs of city-sized settlements and the removal of (or agreement to become non-privileged, ordinary Palestinian citizens by) over 450,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem. This is not just “small and mutually agreed adjustments” to the border. With the settlements continuing to expand, their reality and that of the Apartheid Wall are increasingly making a real two-state solution impossible. What many Israeli and U.S. policymakers quietly intend is the anointing of a Palestinian “virtual state” – it would have passports and a full seat at the UN, internet identity and a telephone country code all its own. But it would be made up of Gaza and less than 50% of the West Bank in the form of a set of non-contiguous bantustans linked by Israeli-controlled roads and bridges, with Israel remaining in control of borders, airspace, military and security capacity, and more.
As creation of a viable Palestinian state becomes less realistic, the alternative of recognizing all of historic Palestine – including what is now Israel as well as the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – as one country, with equal rights for all its citizens, begins to look like a more realistic option.
- Myth 7) Israeli participation in the Annapolis conference indicates a willingness to make serious new compromises on the long-standing obstacles to a just and lasting peace.
On settlements: the words “settler” and “settlement” did not appear in Olmert’s speech in Annapolis. Before arriving, there was a high-profile announcement that Israel would refrain from building any “new” settlements in the West Bank; this is complete spin, since the real expansion of the settler population is taking place by expanding the land controlled by and the people populating the existing settlements, not primarily by building new ones.
On Jerusalem: mentioned only as Olmert having come from Jerusalem, and having once been the mayor of Jerusalem; no reference to sharing Jerusalem, ending the occupation of East Jerusalem, Palestinian rights to their capital in Jerusalem, etc.
On Refugees: the words “refugee,” “return,” “rights,” “international law,” “resolution 194” did not appear. Olmert referred in a deliberately obscure reference to “your people who have suffered for many years” and Palestinians who “have been living for decades in camps, disconnected from the environment in which they grew up…” But Olmert, saying he “came here today NOT in order to settle historical accounts between us and you,” did not recognize Israeli responsibility for Palestinian suffering, let alone accept the international law-mandated solution under resolution 194 ensuring the right of the refugees to return. Instead he claimed Israel would “find a proper framework for their future, in the Palestinian state that will be established in the territories agreed upon between us.”
On Borders: the words “border,” “Wall,” “fence,” “barrier” did not appear.
- Myth 8) Arab participation reflects U.S. and Israeli acceptance of the 2002 Arab peace initiative as part of the diplomatic framework.
In fact, only Abbas even described the actual requirements of the Arab peace initiative – Israel ending occupation to the 1967 borders, refugees, Jerusalem, the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. For Bush and Olmert, it was referenced only in the context of its consequence: IF Israel ended the occupation, recognized the refugees’ right to return, etc., THEN normalization between Israel and the Arab world was possible. Olmert’s speech included a litany of what he thinks about the Arab initiative: he is “familiar with” it, “acknowledges,” “appreciates” the initiative…but no indication he accepts or would abide by it. In fact Olmert addressed the Arab diplomats directly, reminding them that whatever their views,, the Arab governments would have no place at the table. “[E]ven if the Arab peace initiative presents principles based on the Arab narrative, You have no intention of replacing the Palestinians in the negotiations. Please support them; they need it. Without your support for compromises there will be no peace.” For Olmert, the Arab governments’ job was to collaborate in Palestinian surrender.
- Myth 9) Syria’s participation means Syria is now joining the pro-western anti-Iran contingent in the region.
Syria is a poor and relatively weak country, whose President Bashar al-Assad has never claimed the power and influence of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Despite Syria’s longstanding ties to Iran, it is a key component of the Arab world, and could not afford to insult the Arab League call for participation in Annapolis. Syrian attendance, at a relatively junior level in a partial snub to the U.S. and Israel (and even to Mahmoud Abbas) gets Damascus off the hot-seat with Washington – which continues to hope for being able to wean Syria away from Iran. Syria was able to at least mention the words “Golan Heights” and remind diplomatic listeners that the Arab peace initiative also included ending israel’s occupation of the Golan as a precondition to normalization. And Syrian participation in Annapolis could be viewed as paying a kind of protection money, reducing the influence of the “Syria Next” crowd in Washington.
- Myth 10) The speeches given at Annapolis will inspire new commitments.
The Annapolis meeting did not set forth a grandiose set of “confidence-building measures” to launch the process. The pre-Annapolis announcements of the Israeli government featured a high-profile announcement of the release of 450 prisoners (less than 5% of the more than 10,000 Israel continues to illegal hold) and a promise not to build any new settlements. This was a retreat even from the road map’s alleged call for Israel to “freeze all settlement expansion,” meaning no additional building or adding new settlers. In fact real confidence-building would require Israel to at least begin the process of actually dismantling existing settlements. Not simply the tiny symbolic “outposts” which Israel can shut down with little political and no financial cost (though they have not been shut down as promised in the road map) – but a real move to begin dismantling some of the empty or half-finished apartments currently being built throughout the existing city-sized illegal settlements such as Ariel or Ma’ale Adumim. That would be a step towards not simply preventing further deterioration, but a step towards serious peace-making.
- Myth 11) The Annapolis conference was based on implementing all relevant UN resolutions.
The presence of dozens of governments and international organizations at Annapolis gave the conference the appearance of a United Nations-style event. But it was all about style – not substance. In that way it reflected a similar scenario in 1991, when the U.S. orchestrated (ostensibly with Soviet co-sponsorship) the Madrid conference to “launch” new peace talks. A huge glittering international gathering – but the official Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel, setting the terms for Israeli participation, guaranteed that the sole United Nations representative would be prohibited from speaking. While current UN chief Ban ki-Moon was formally allowed to speak in Annapolis, there was not even the illusion that the world organization, which should be the centerpiece of all international diplomatic efforts on this issue, was to be allowed a serious role.
No UN resolutions were even mentioned in the joint Israeli-Palestinian statement that Bush read to open the conference. Abbas did refer to resolution 194 (ensuring refugees’ the right of return) but it was ignored by the U.S. and Israeli speeches. Olmert did mention 242 and 338, but equated UN resolutions’ authority with that of the April 14, 2004 letter President Bush sent to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promising U.S. support for Israeli annexation of huge settlement blocs and Israel’s rejection of the right of return. There was no discussion, of course, of Washington’s pattern of veto-threats and veto use in the Security Council that has consistently prevented Israel from being held accountable for its violations of international law.
- Myth 12) Annapolis was a failure.
If we understand Annapolis for what it really was, it may prove to be a great success. (See Myth #1) The Arab regimes can go home with transcripts of their own speeches, whether bluster or statesmanlike, and show their people how they stood up to Israel and the U.S., and how they helped the Palestinians. They can then show more willingness the next time Bush asks them for fly-over rights, for base rights, for political support. And Condoleezza Rice got her photo-ops. Her legacy, too early to say.
But based on its real, however unacknowledged, goals, Annapolis may turn out to be a great success.
So what does it all mean? And what do we do now?
There is another myth that says Annapolis, the latest iteration of U.S.-controlled “peace processes,” represents the epicenter of current Israeli-Palestinian peace-making efforts. That was never true. The framework of this conference, shaped by U.S. global power and unilateralism; Israel’s regional expansionism, militarism and apartheid policies; Arab governments’ repression and militarism; and Palestinian division and weakness, never held out much hope for a just or lasting or comprehensive peace. But that does not mean real peace-making work is not underway. Palestinian civil society, backed by global civil society, a few governments and sometimes the United Nations, are building non-violent movements challenging those realities.
In 2005, Palestinian and global civil society called for creation of a movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, to bring international non-violent economic pressure on Israel to comply with international law. That movement is well underway. The rising global use of the framework of an anti-apartheid movement to challenge Israeli policies of discrimination, moved forward by people like former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and organizations like the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation. Israel’s illegal Apartheid Wall faces challenges from global mobilizations and through the direct action of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals at places like the West Bank village of Bi’ilin, where every Friday activists non-violently gather to protest the Wall. Organizations like the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, the Stop the Wall Coalition and BADIL in the occupied territories, the International Coordinating Network on Palestine and so many others remain engaged in this work.
While U.S. threats and vetoes have largely prevented the Security Council from the central role it should play in this issue, other parts of the United Nations system remain thoroughly engaged. From General Assembly committees protecting the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, to the courageous work of Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories John Dugard, as well as the analysis of former UN representative to the “Quartet” Alvaro de Soto who exposed U.S. support for inter-Palestinian violence in Gaza, the UN remains an important ally. There are campaigns in U.S., European, Brazilian and many other national courts, as well as in the International Court of Justice, to hold Israel accountable for its violations. Those are the places where real peace-making is underway. There are efforts for real justice – unlike whatever “peace” comes out of Annapolis, which is likely to be neither just nor lasting.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org) and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her most recent book is Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.