Annapolis and beyond

2007-11-30 00:00

Freedom for the Palestinians, security for Israel, and peace all round. This was the message of hope presented by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Annapolis in Maryland, U.S., as peace talks were resumed following a gap of seven years. The major unresolved issues around final status concern Jerusalem, borders, settlements, security, refugees and access to water.

The run-up to this initiative has been appropriately low key. Too often in the past, expectations have been raised unrealistically high. But the aim is nonetheless very ambitious — to fulfil the Oslo Accords of 1993 that would lead to the co-existence of two sovereign states. It is ultimately the only solution.

But it will require pragmatism on both sides. Palestinians have to accept that they cannot turn the clock back completely on the land issue; and Israelis will need to evacuate West Bank settlements. At present Palestine is the equivalent of an old South African bantustan. It requires real sovereignty, territorial integrity and economic viability before lasting peace can be glimpsed.

To attract Syria and Saudi Arabia to Annapolis has been an achievement in itself. But the main leaders involved — Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George W. Bush — are all, for different reasons, in weak political positions. On the ground on both sides there is strong opposition to compromise backed by zealots with little scruple about the further shedding of blood.

Olmert and Abbas seem acutely aware that they have a rare opportunity, perhaps the last for many years. Israel has good reason to deal now with the secular nationalists of Fatah. Failure would almost certainly usher in another round of violence with wide regional implications exploited by Shia militants and Jihadist opportunists. Ominously, Hamas is not involved and Gaza remains a symbol of the despair and danger of the Palestinian situation.

The Middle East is politically the world’s most volatile region; and Palestine the fuse. To deactivate it will require extraordinary goodwill and political skill. This raises the question of what might have been, had resources been poured into this crucial issue rather than fruitless intervention in Iraq.

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