Annapolis here they come?

As the vital behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians and the Americans continued over the past weeks in advance of the Annapolis summit, one issue has taken centre stage — the notion of Israel as a ‘Jewish State’. The controversy that the subject has generated, and the fact that it alone may jeopardise whether the talks may yet even take place, speaks volumes about the differences that remain between Israel, and the Palestinians and the Arab world as whole.

This past week Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly declared that the starting point for all negotiations with the Palestinians will be the “recognition of Israel as a state for the Jewish people …

“We won’t hold negotiations on our existence as a Jewish state; this is alaunching point for all negotiations.

“We won’t have an argument with anyone in the world over the fact that Israel is a state of the Jewish people. Whoever does not accept this cannot hold any negotiations with me. This has been made clear to the Palestinians and the Americans.

“This will be a condition for our recognition of a Palestinian state … I have no doubt that Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and (PLO appointed PA Prime Minister Salam) Fayad are committed to prior agreements and want to make peace with Israel as a Jewish state.”

Olmert’s comments drew strong support from inside Israel and condemnation across the Arab world.

The Jerusalem Post stated: “In essence, Israel is demanding that the Palestinians end their double game. Without mutual recognition, there is no basis for negotiation. The Palestinians expect Israel to accept their existence and rights as a people. The Jewish people expect no less.”

Yehiel Shabbi meanwhile wrote in Ma’ariv: “The Arab states, the Palestinians and Israel’s Arabs must understand that Jews also have ‘homeland’ rights in Palestine. Israel must insist on its right to exist as a democratic Jewish state, and in parallel it must enable the Arabs to realise their national right outside its sovereign territories. ”

The Palestinian’s immediate rejection of the notion was equally equivocal however. Saeb Erekat, chief PLO/PA negotiator, rejected the demand on Monday, in an interview with Israel Radio, declaring that “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity”.

Erekat’s position was echoed and made in even stronger terms by politicians and journalists across the Arab world. In the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam, Abdulamjid Suwaylim wrote: “This (Jewish State) idea is based on purely racist dimensions. Israel is legislating racism when it talks about the Jewish nature of the state because this will not be fair to the millions of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and diaspora.”

Even comment from parts of the more moderate, Western-orientated sections of the Arab world expressed disgust, the UAE’s Al Khaleej newspaper, for example, declaring: “The idea of the ‘Jewish state’ is catastrophic. The Palestinian National Authority has to realise the danger of the ambitions of this enemy and its evil aims and to act to put an end to concessions. The Arab countries are also urged to adopt a firm stand that will cut off the road to a new disaster targeting the Palestinians and a new crime of the century represented by cancelling the return of refugees to their homeland.”

Some Arab commentators, however, were more conciliatory and pragmatic — a sign, perhaps, that movement on this vital matter from Arab leaders is indeed a possibility. Jawad al-Bashtit, for example, wrote in Jordan’s Al-Arab al-Yawm: “There is nothing that prevents the Palestinian negotiator from showing readiness to recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ based on international legitimacy and in conformity with it. The international community, represented in the UN General Assembly, has approved through the ‘partition resolution’ (in 1947) the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.”

Meanwhile, as the vital ‘Final Status Issues’ again dominate public debate and with future negotiations on the horizon, Israeli parliamentarians have acted to legislate regarding another of Israel’s most emotive national and religious claims — Jerusalem.

Amidst growing rumours that in the preparatory negotiations for Annapolis the Olmert government had indicated that it might ‘soften’ Israel’s stance on the Holy City, on November 14 the Knesset gave initial approval to draft legislation designed to limit any changes to Jerusalem’s status in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.

If passed, the bill will require a two thirds majority in the Knesset to amend the law claiming all of the city as Israeli territory, and all of it as Israel’s capital city. However, the bill must still pass a number of other parliamentary procedures, and a further three votes, before becoming law — a process that will take some months.

Likud’s Gideon Saar, the bill’s proposer, stated that the first vote on his proposal was a “clear sign” to the international community that there was widespread consensus in Israel against any major concessions on Jerusalem.

In the shadow of these key developments, frantic work has been taking place behind the scenes to put together a joint Palestinian-Israeli statement/document that will allow Annapolis to take place, and to generally set the ground work for the meeting’s desired success.

While some doubts remain as to whether Annapolis will even happen, and whether it will be doomed to failure if it does, there are at least some signs that groundbreaking developments are possibly brewing behind the scenes. They might — just might — provide an opportunity for a major breakthrough at the gathering.

The Israeli media has been filled with reports that Olmert plans to announce a settlement construction freeze before Annapolis, in a move designed to show Israeli good faith and seriousness in advance of the gathering, and satisfy a key Arab demand. Reports claim that a group of senior Israeli officials flew to Washington this week to discuss the components of this freeze with Bush administration officials.

Olmert has also confirmed that talks with the PA were proceeding toward likely negotiations over a final-status agreement — last attempted by Barak, at Camp David and Taba in late 2000 and early 2001 — despite the fact that the first stage of the Quartet-initiated Roadmap has yet to be implemented.In recent weeks opposition politicians have been accusing the government of holding negotiations outside of Roadmap parameters, and the PM this week said, “There is a new outline … The traditional position has been that there will be no Roadmap implementation without the first phase. I came to the conclusion that we are somewhat able to change the tradition.”

Ha’aretz notes that with these comments, “Olmert essentially confirmed those accusations.”

It also now looks like Syria will in fact participate in the peace conference — even if with only a low-level delegation, senior Russian officials have informed their Israeli counterparts. Syria has repeatedly said it will not attend unless the issue of the Golan Heights was explicitly on the agenda (and as yet it is not), but now seem to have been convinced that this is not an event and process from which they can risk being divorced.

And Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said that Arab countries will adopt a unified stance on the conference at an Arab foreign ministers’ meeting to be held in Cairo on November 22, suggesting the seriousness with which the Arab world view it.

Despite some of these signs, however, the chances of breakthroughs at Annapolis are looking slimmer as the days pass. Pessimism is dominating Palestinian pronouncements ahead of the conference, with clear signs also that the Arab world as a whole is starting to blame Israel for the failure of the gathering before it has even started.

While announcing that Arab leaders will be meeting to formulate this unified Arab position ahead of the summit, Moussa also confirmed the high levels of cynicism and anger towards the current Israeli policy positions, that are dominating the mood and thinking in Arab capitals pre-Annapolis.

And today, November 17, during a meeting with the Saudi King Abdullah, Abbas voiced his dissatisfaction with Israel’s “unwillingness” to satisfy the minimum level of Palestinian pre-conference requirements, Jamal al-Shobaki, the Palestinian ambassador to Riyadh, told journalists. The Saudi king echoed Abbas’ concerns, with al-Shobaki stating, “The Arab side is calling for the implementation of the first phase of the peace process’ Roadmap, which includes halt in the construction and a dismantling of settlements, in addition to the formation of a clear agenda for the conference and a timetable for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the aftermath of the conference… The issues are intertwined and give a clear indication of whether Israelis are serious or not. “

But the indications we have received so far from Israelis are not positive.”

Haaretz reports that Palestinian sources have indicated that the Saudis are furious that Israel is unwilling to mention in the summit’s concluding remarks the Arab League peace proposal, which was, of course, first proposed and promoted by Saudi Arabia. Some Arab officials are worried that if Israel does not budge on this point, the Saudis will refuse to participate at Annapolis, and the Arab League will follow suit.

Few are thus expecting major breakthroughs at the summit, though it does seem now that chances of its taking place are at least strong. And where there is a chance, there is always some hope.By the time you are reading this article, the event will have happened, and things will be a lot clearer. Watch this space for an Annapolis post-mortem in the next issue!


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