At an intersection in front of Nablus city hall, a pair of women threaded a knot of waiting pedestrians, glanced left, then dashed across the street. “What’s this?” an onlooker chastised them. “Can’t you see the red light?” Not long after, his patience exhausted, the self-appointed traffic cop himself stepped off the curb and made his way to the other side of the boulevard. Such is life in the West Bank on the eve of the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, where the Bush administration intends to create the semblance of a “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians for the first time since it assumed office. There is excitement in Palestinian towns about the urban order newly emerging from years of chaos; there is a willingness to play by the rules even as many remain convinced that doing so will not get them very far; and, lastly, there is the reality that when the waiting grows tiresome, people will again take matters into their own hands. As for the Annapolis meeting itself, it is being greeted with indifference, with few believing it will lead to either meaningful change in their daily lives or substantive progress toward the end of an Israeli occupation now in its fifth decade.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are also once again playing by the rules, cajoled by the United States to return to the table following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ subsequent formation of an interim government in Ramallah. This would be no small feat, as negotiations over the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for which the Palestinian leadership has long been clamoring, have been frozen for more than six years. But today, with Palestinians deeply divided and the international community deeply invested in perpetuating their division, negotiations have become a venue for struggle as much as a means for reaching a settlement. The current talk of peacemaking is thus an exercise in conflict by other means, raising opposition—among Israelis and Palestinians alike, though in different ways—to what was already a contentious process.

The Annapolis Meeting

The Annapolis meeting was announced by a Bush administration that was unsure how to address the mess created by its six years of neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet eager to salvage an achievement from its catastrophic Middle East policy and cognizant of the need to rally Arab support for a possible confrontation with Iran. In July, Bush announced an “international meeting” whose agenda was something of a mélange: Anchored in boilerplate about Palestinian institutional reform, it also offered “diplomatic support” for Abbas’ and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s biweekly discussions. At the time, these talks were focused on delimiting a “political horizon”—that is, the rough contours of what a Palestinian state would look like—but as the conversations took on a genial tone, Ramallah’s aspirations for what Annapolis could accomplish rose. The commentariat began to bruit about prescriptions for what it would take to accord Abbas a major diplomatic victory and thus transform the Palestinian political order. Would Israelis and Palestinians agree to a framework agreement for peace, thereby succeeding where their predecessors had failed, or only produce a more general declaration of principles, as had already been done in 1993? The negotiating teams, appointed in early October, did not meet even the most modest of expectations in this regard.

As the gaps between the two sides remained unbridgeable, domestic fronts opened up as well. Olmert’s coalition partners threatened to abandon the government if Annapolis should yield the kind of result from which Abbas could make political hay, while Hamas withdrew the mandate to negotiate it had extended to Abbas in a 2006 agreement and confirmed in an accord brokered by the Saudis in 2007. What, then, could the two sides agree on?

First, they agreed that whatever they decide in Annapolis will be implemented only in accordance with the “road map,” the 2003 document sponsored by the so-called Quartet of the US, the UN, Russia and the European Union. The road map required the relative normalization of daily life before any discussions of the “final status” issues—borders, settlements, water, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees—could get underway. For Palestinians, this meant ensuring Israeli security, including the disbanding of militias, as well as transforming the Palestinian Authority into an efficient and effective institution. For Israelis, it meant measures aimed at making Palestinian life under occupation a bit more bearable. But with armed groups having seized the initiative from the Palestinian leadership, and Israel attaching conditions that vitiated its acquiescence of any import, the document was dead on arrival.

More than four years later—and two years after the road map’s proclaimed expiration date—it has a new lease on life. For Olmert and his colleagues, the road map’s resurrection offers a way to divorce final status negotiations from the act of talking about them to the Palestinians, thus enabling Israeli officials to cast their glance at the horizon without sacrificing crucial support at home. It also allows for continued insistence on Palestinian security reform, though Palestinian officials, all the way up to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, seem to need no prodding in this direction.

As for Abbas, the road map permits him to insist that Israel undertake a range of measures that Palestinians have been demanding for a long time: a settlement freeze, the reopening of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, removal of restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement and dismantling of outposts (that is, settlements that are not just illegal under international law but also unauthorized by the Israeli government) built since 2001. And since Abbas is confident that the Palestinians have already made good progress toward meeting their commitments, the road map is, in his estimation, cost-free.

Second, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to continue talking. On the one hand, this development ought not to be dismissed: Not since January 2001 have final status issues been on the table, and after six years of stonewalling Palestinian demands to take them up anew, the Israeli government finally relented. The atmosphere surrounding the Annapolis meeting has accordingly lightened of late: Press accounts, which had been poking fun at the administration’s inability even to name a date for the talks, began taking the meeting more seriously. The State Department, which semi-comically insisted early on that the meeting was “not a conference,” so as to bottom out the low expectations, took to dropping the C-word regularly in briefings. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even says she hopes the two sides can strike a final deal “in this president's term, and it’s no secret that means about a year.”

But, on the other hand, what seems to be a victory of sorts should be recognized for the failure that it is: Annapolis was not supposed to be a launching pad for final status talks, as an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team put it. Rather, the Maryland meeting was supposed to mark the halfway point to a final status agreement. If the two teams could not agree, in the course of nearly two months, upon a short statement of the most basic parameters for a resolution—the 1967 border with minor and reciprocal territorial modifications, a divided Jerusalem as the capital of two states, a negotiated solution to the refugee question—why would another eight months (as the Palestinian team wanted) or 14 (as Olmert suggested) help? After 15 years of on-again, off-again negotiations, why would time be the salient variable? And even should Israeli and Palestinian negotiators find common ground before Bush’s term ends, what hope does either government have of selling it at home?

Israel: A Horizon Dimmed

Public opinion in Israel, like that in the Occupied Territories, has long been equivocal: A majority of the population supports a two-state solution to the conflict, though it is substantially less willing to accept concessions on specific final status issues. But even before he could plumb the nuances of public opinion, Olmert found himself confronted with political difficulties that limited whatever maneuvers he might have been willing to assay.

The hardline Yisrael Beitenu party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party each threatened to bolt from the cabinet if substantive negotiations occurred at Annapolis. Yet with polls predicting that they would lose seats in new elections, these parties were loath to bring down the government and, in any event, satisfied that the pressure they exerted had led Olmert to dim the horizon of expectations. Yisrael Beitenu and Shas are planning to use the same tactic after the Annapolis proceedings close, when they will be no less intent on clinging to the perquisites of power. Hence the political problems the prime minister could face down the road are not necessarily smaller than those of today—not that either of his coalition partners believes an Annapolis process will ever progress far enough to produce a moment of truth.

But there is some risk in this strategy for Yisrael Beitenu and Shas as well. Should there be sufficient progress in negotiations to push these parties into opposition, Olmert could count on votes from the left-of-center Meretz party (five seats) and the “Arab parties” (as parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, which hold ten seats, are known) to block the no-confidence motion that could bring down the government. These votes would give him the necessary bridge to complete negotiations, which he could then take into new elections that would become a referendum on the agreement. Fraught with uncertainty, this scenario would be the last resort of any sitting prime minister, who would use all the carrots and sticks he could muster to prevent the breakup of his coalition. But it may well provide Olmert with his only way out. Previous prime ministers have depended on the votes of Meretz and Arab legislators to pass crucial pieces of legislation (Yitzhak Rabin for the second Oslo accord in 1995, Ariel Sharon for the budget during “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005). But today, given the increasing emphasis on the Jewishness of Israel, it is far riskier to rely on Arab votes when fateful questions hang in the balance.

Securing recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has been a regular feature of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (though not of Israel’s successful negotiations with Egypt and Jordan). During the Oslo talks of the early 1990s, Israeli negotiators demanded Palestinian recognition of Israel as a legitimate political entity; at Camp David in July 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted that Yasser Arafat recognize the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif); and now, leading into Annapolis, a raft of Israeli politicians have made Palestinian recognition of the Jewish character of the state a central issue—and for some, a prerequisite—for final status negotiations. In the context of “separation from the Palestinians,” a phrase which disengagement thrust to the forefront of political discourse, the emphasis on the Jewishness of the state has become all the more prominent. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has been among the most outspoken in this regard, holding that the future state of Palestine will represent the national solution for the Palestinian citizens of Israel no less than for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak numbers among those seeking recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but his lack of enthusiasm for Annapolis and whatever may come after does not stem primarily from ideology. As a result of the Camp David fiasco and eruption of the fall 2000 intifada, during which he was also prime minister, he fundamentally mistrusts the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Not less importantly, he also doubts the capacity of Palestinian security services, a concern that resonates publicly following Israel’s war with Hizballah in 2006 and continued rocket fire from Gaza.

Barak has provoked the ire of many of his Labor Party colleagues who lament his defection from the Israeli “peace camp,” but his opposition cannot be dismissed simply as politicking for personal gain. Indeed, if Israel’s most sought-after asset is security, why should it sign an agreement with a leader who cannot provide it? Any agreement the parties reach will be shelved until that elusive day when the Palestinian security services—still under the constraints of occupation—prove themselves more adept than the Israeli army. So why negotiate now, with a leader who, due to the breakdown of his accord with Hamas, lacks a mandate to speak for his entire people? If Israel finds itself in subsequent negotiations with someone other than Abbas, its Palestinian interlocutors may well insist on reopening negotiations—much like new Israeli leaders did in the 1990s—pocketing the concessions that Israel makes in this round.

Palestine: A House Divided

The Palestinian national movement is more sharply fractured than at any time in its recent history. The June 2007 Islamist seizure of power in the Gaza Strip, and the appointment of a rival government by Abbas whose authority is confined to the West Bank, has added an unprecedented territorial dimension to the schism.

Prospects for reconciliation are meager at best, with Abbas’ Fatah movement and Hamas more concerned with consolidating power within their respective areas of influence and undermining their rivals’ authority, and with dialogue limited to informal contacts aimed at exploring the basis upon which substantive talks might take place at a later stage. Hamas seems to be increasingly in the grip of a radical faction that has no interest in a deal that would entail relinquishing Islamist hegemony over the Gaza Strip.

While many in Fatah are dissatisfied with the exclusion of Fatah from the key portfolios in the Fayyad government, only a minority advocates engagement with Hamas now. One former security commander, when asked about Hamas’ strength in the West Bank, issued a sharp rejoinder: “That’s the wrong question and the wrong approach. Fatah should not deal with Hamas by overpowering it. It should be about dialogue. Hamas should be crushed by dialogue, not by arms, by embarrassing it over what it did in Gaza.” But his is a rare voice; it is more common for Fatah notables to denounce parley with those they consider putschists and declare they will accept nothing less than a reversal of fortunes.

Israel and the international community, which bear significant responsibility for the state of affairs because of their policies toward the Palestinians since the 2006 elections that gave Hamas control of the Palestinian Legislative Council, have only deepened the rift with their insistence that Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and Palestinian reconciliation are fundamentally incompatible. Even in the absence of external constraints, it will prove extremely difficult to achieve a new agreement between the Palestinian rivals; in the grip of them, the prospects are virtually zero.

Both Abbas and Hamas are betting, in opposite directions, on the Annapolis meeting and the process it may spawn. Abbas hopes to show that bilateral negotiations can achieve what resistance cannot, both in terms of diplomatic process and improvements in daily life. Hamas is wagering that precisely the opposite will occur, and that, once chastened, Fatah will have no choice but to revive its partnership with the Islamists, on the latter’s terms. Yet even should the international custodians of this process provide Abbas with sufficient goods to dissuade Fatah from resuming dialogue with Hamas, the Islamist movement assumes that the fruits of the process will ultimately redound to its benefit, as did those of the Oslo process when Hamas in 2006 won control of the legislature. And should the process further threaten Hamas’ position, it need not stand idly by. Abbas is in no position to conclude a historic compromise without the safety net of a national consensus including Hamas—much less implement one in the teeth of active and perhaps armed Islamist opposition.

Compelling Hamas to fight for its very survival rather than what it perceives as its rightful role in the Palestinian political system is only compounding these challenges. The Gaza Strip is under unprecedented pressure. Border crossings remain closed to most exports and all but the most vital imports, precipitating an economic freefall from which an eventual recovery will be prolonged and difficult. The economy is being hollowed out, as the private sector—the most productive—is progressively destroyed. Given the continued rocket fire on southern Israel, the Olmert government has declared Gaza a “hostile entity,” setting the stage for further measures including embargoes on electricity and fuel. These sanctions may be a prelude to an eventual Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip akin to that in the West Bank in 2002, though many consider this scenario unlikely—except in the event of significant Israeli causalities—because it will create as many Israeli dilemmas as it resolves. Once Israel conquers the coastal strip, it will either need to remain and occupy or withdraw and, inevitably, face further attacks. That Hamas will be unseated from within seems even less likely; despite growing popular disenchantment and sporadic clashes, the Islamists have the wherewithal to remain in power and a proven determination to use it.

The squeeze on Hamas in the West Bank is less obvious to the naked eye, but no less real. There have been widespread arrests of suspected Hamas activists, pressures on NGOs and charities affiliated with the movement, and politically motivated hirings and firings—all of which have generated an atmosphere of intimidation paralleling that experienced by Fatah in the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders in the West Bank claim that certain government employees, accused of Islamist sympathies, have been denied salaries on the pretext they were “acting against legitimacy.” But it is not only Hamas that is affected, as a Nablus transportation worker complained: “I used to work as a policeman in Jenin. I left in 2000 when the intifada started. Now that things seem to be settling down, I tried to get my job back when the new [interim] government [under Salam Fayyad] started working. I was refused on flimsy and false pretexts. Finally, after I really pushed it, the officer asked me, ‘What is your political affiliation?’ I told him, ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.’ He knew that’s what I was going to say. It was no secret. But at least he was honest: ‘That’s why you’re not getting your job back. Affiliate with Fatah and we’ll rehire you.”

Ramallah’s ham-fisted approach is the reason that Nasir al-Din al-Sha‘ir, the Islamist former deputy prime minister and minister of education in the national unity government, believes that “in the long term, the big loser will be the Palestinian Authority. Repression plays into Hamas’ hands. Every person who is fired, every person who isn’t accorded his rights—each has families and neighbors. Hamas has only been in power for a year in its entire history. If you pull Hamas out of power, you are returning it to its normal position where it is most comfortable.”

Nobody, not even Hamas representatives, disputes that the movement’s popularity has shrunk from the unusually high level of support that it won in the 2006 legislative elections. But it is fanciful to think that the movement has shriveled to the point of irrelevance. Difficult as conditions are, and may yet become, for the Islamist movement, its continued military and political potency poses two fundamental challenges to Abbas. First, he cannot credibly claim to represent the Palestinian people in his dealings with Israel and the international community, particularly if the Gaza Strip is excluded from any benefits the Annapolis process may produce. Second, he cannot hope to legitimize any peace agreement he may reach with Israel.

Hamas, no less than Abbas, faces dilemmas of its own. It confronts external pressure and the consequences of its own brutal campaign to impose internal order—and, no less important, the contradictions born of governance. Palestinians have begun to wonder how Hamas can claim the mantle of resistance even as it abstains from it, and how it can oppose the Annapolis meeting yet reap the fruits of the “peace process” writ large.

The Annapolis Process

With Israelis and Palestinians agreeing to little more than resumption of talks on final status issues and the gradual implementation of the road map, the Annapolis meeting seems poised to morph into the Annapolis process, belatedly signaling that its predecessor, the Oslo process, has been superseded. The change in nomenclature is entirely appropriate, not only because Oslo has, in practice, been dead for six years, but also because the “two-state solution” means something very different today than it did in 1993, when the Oslo process got underway. Then, the call for two states was the preserve of the left, of Palestinians and their allies, whereas today, pinning down a two-state settlement seems just as important to other parts of the political spectrum, if not more so. Rice has told Congress that the window for a two-state settlement may be closing, with Islamic radicals the ultimate beneficiaries if it closes; Olmert openly worries about a South Africa-like struggle that will be more difficult for Israel to combat; and Livni couches her support for two states in the soothing formula of “empowering the moderates.” US and Israeli politicians and diplomats see an abyss to circumnavigate, a greater evil that only a new partition of historic Palestine can avoid.

Partisans of a comprehensive peace must ask the question of whether it will be possible to achieve this end via the exclusion of Hamas. In narrow terms, this route will ensure that neither party will get what it wants out of an Annapolis process: for Israel, security, and for Ramallah, the flexibility to conclude and ratify an eventual accord. But more broadly, the ongoing diplomatic and financial blockade of Hamas raises questions as to the nature of the “endgame” being contemplated: Will it turn out to be a vehicle for the realization of Palestinian self-determination or—as demography takes precedence over territory in the Israeli political calculus—an instrument to constrain it?

And particularly if the Annapolis process does materialize, will it amount to a means for Israel to buy time and further tighten its grip on the West Bank, or will effective measures, such as a settlement freeze, be built in to neutralize the element of time while negotiators consider their options? Given the doubts that have already enveloped the Annapolis meeting, it seems unlikely to succeed where Oslo collapsed into renewed conflict. Not only are many of the structural flaws of the Oslo process still present in its anticipated Annapolis successor, but today there is the added problem that the parley’s sponsors see progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace and an escalation of inter-Palestinian conflict as indivisible objectives.

How to cite this article:

Mouin Rabbani, Robert Blecher "In Annapolis, Conflict by Other Means," Middle East Report Online, November 26, 2007.

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