Annapolis Conference: Olmert says Abbas is his friend

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has just finished addressing the Annapolis conference, in the public opening session, and he, too, spoke mainly to his own domestic constituency.

But, he did say, at the end, that Palestinian President Mahmoud was his “friend”: “I invite you, my friend, Mahmoud Abbas, and your people, to join us on the long road to peace [through this newly-agreed negotiating process and the “painful compromises” that it will necessarily entail]. Together we shall start, and together we shall arrive.” Olmert had just said that “there is no just solution other than two national states for two peoples”.

Olmert said that he did not come to Annapolis to settle historical controversies. But, he said, “I want to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, I acknowledge, I know that (alongside Israeli suffering…) your people too have suffered for many years, and some stil suffer. Many Palestinians are still in camps (cut off from the world) … and living with a deep, unrelenting sense of humiliation … This is the deepest foundation that formented hatred toward us”, he said.

Olmert said: “We want peace, but we demand an end to terror, incitement, and hatred.” He spoke about “dreadful terrorism perpetuated (against the Israeli people) by Palestinian organizations”, that he witnessed when he was the mayor of Jerusalem, and about the “ongoing shooting of Qassam rockets in the south of Israel, particularly in Sderot”. He also said “we are anxiously awaiting the return of our missing sons — Gilad, Elad and Udi — kidnapped by “terrorist organizations”.

He also said that the absence of Palestinian government institutions, and law enforcement, as well as the absence of a legal system based in democratic values, are all factors that deter us from moving forward. But the time has come, he said.

And, Olmert added, “in the course of negotiations between us”, the two delegations would be working on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, as well as the Roadmap, and the letter that George Bush addressed to Ariel Sharon on 14 April 2004 (which said that negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state would take into account present realities — interpreted as meaning that large Jewish settlements could remain in the West Bank). And, Olmert said, the result would reaffirm that Israel was “the national home of the Jewish people”:

Annapolis Conference: Abbas says Palestinians, too, have lived through a Holocaust

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the Annapolis conference just now that the duty of all present was to spread hope where there is now an absence of hope — among the Palestinian people.

Palestinian President Mahmoud then spent a large part of his speech to address his own people. In summary paraphrase, that the duty of the conference was to spread hope: “To those Palestinians in the refugee camps, and in the in the diaspora, he said, I do recognize that each one of you has lived through his (or her) own pain, through years of tragedy and occupation: Please don’t be depressed. Don’t lose hope. The whole world is stretching its hand to us, to help us overcome our tragedy and holocaust“.

To the people in Gaza, he said, “You are at the core of my heart”. He promised that he would work to end their suffering … soon.

Abbas also said: “I have the right here to defend openly and with no hesitation the right of my people to see a new dawn, with no occupation, no settlement, no separation wall, no prisons with thousands of prisoners, no assassinations, no siege, and no roadblocks around villages and cities”.

Arabic: "Ana Poliis" – pronounced like Annapolis" means "I am the police"

The Cairo and Jerusalem correspondents of the McClatchy newspaper group reported today that “In the Arab world, political commentary has been decidedly hostile. Most commentators suggest that the conference is a way to pressure Arabs to normalize relations with Israel. The word ‘normalization’, which many Arabs interpret as defeat, crops up in nearly every Arabic-language print or broadcast item on the meeting. Erfan Nizam al Din, writing for the pan-Arab newspaper al Hayat, condemned the talks in a tirade that accused President Bush of staging ‘a theatrical gesture’ aimed at ‘saving face for the United States after a series of failures’. Not even the name of the host city is safe. A humorist at a Saudi-owned newspaper, taking advantage of the fact that ‘ana‘ in Arabic means “I” and that “police” is a word widely understood in the Middle East, put the sounds together and arrived at: Annapolis, or ‘I’m the police‘. That, he joked, was a message from Bush to Middle Eastern leaders. ‘You remember that I am the police, and not only for the Middle East or for the peace process, but for the entire world’, the humorist, Hamad al Majid, wrote, imagining Bush’s opening remarks”.

On a rather more serious note, the same McClatchy story reported that “According to Israeli newspapers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had hoped to prod Olmert into making concessions on Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but she backed off after Olmert warned her that his coalition would crumble if he went too far“. This story, reported from Jerusalem and Cairo for the McClatchy newspaper group, is here.

Olmert: Handshakes don't matter – let the Arab countries open consulates in Israel

The Saudi Foreign Minister has told journalists he will maintain his refusal to shake hands with the Israeli delegation at the Annapolis event today.

Haaretz is reporting that the Saudi FM, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said that “We are not here for theater. We are here for the serious business of making peace. We are not here to give an impression that everything is normal … We will not do anything that will divert from the seriousness of the occasion, [such as] shaking hands to give an impression of something that is not there,” he said. However, Haaretz said, “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested he would not be offended by the lack of handshake, nor would he push the issue. ‘I won’t extend my hand to whoever isn’t ready to shake the hand of the people of Israel’, Olmert said, referring to the Saudi foreign minister. ‘But I am happy he is here’.” This Haaretz story is posted here.

However, another Haaretz report said that “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday that he expects Arab states to open consular offices in Israel following the Annapolis summit. Olmert told Ban that ‘every Arab or Muslim state which participates in the Annapolis summit should demonstrate its support of the process in this way’ … Olmert told Ban that he does not expect immediate normalization of Israeli-Arab relations, but nonetheless expects some good will gestures, such as opening consular offices. Olmert asked Ban to convey his message to Arab leaders and exert his leverage to facilitate the idea”. This Haaretz report is posted here.

The Annapolis event schedule

Here is the Annapolis Schedule for November 27 as communicated by the U.S. Department of State

Opening Session – Memorial Hall

* Remarks by President George W. Bush

* Remarks by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas

* Remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Working Lunch — Smoke Hall

* Introduction by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

International Support for the Peace Process — Memorial Hall

Institutional Reform and Capacity Building — Memorial Hall

Toward a Comprehensive Peace in the Middle East — Memorial Hall

* Future Separate Tracks Between Israel and Neighbors

* Israel-Syria

* Israel-Lebanon

* Advancing Normal Relations and Security Between Israel and the Arab States

Closing Remarks by Secretary Rice — Memorial Hall

Events are subject to change without notice.

The Independent: Bush is a problem

The British newspaper The Independent speculates that the Annapolis conference may be a “Mission Impossible”, largely due to a number of deficits it attributes to U.S. President George W. Bush:

“Mr Bush needs to throw his weight behind the new peace efforts; not just through the intermediary of Ms Rice, however close to him she is, but personally – and constantly. Follow-through has never been his strength, be it in the absence of planning for post-invasion Iraq, or in the failure to make sure the proper aid was reaching New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Second, many doubt he will put enough pressure on the Israelis to make the painful concessions needed for a settlement to be credible in the eyes of the Palestinians. Mr Bush may be the most instinctively pro-Israeli President ever (though he has yet to visit Israel in his near-seven years in office). Those inclinations have only been reinforced by the ‘war on terror’. Soon after the September 11 attacks, Mr Sharon convinced him that Palestinian attacks on Israel were part and parcel of the global struggle with militant radical Islam. As a result, the onus hitherto has always been on the Palestinians to show progress on security, before anything was required of Israel. Making matters worse was Mr Bush’s lack of knowledge and sense of history. Flynt Everett, once the top adviser to Ms Rice on Middle East matters, but now a strong critic of the President, last week related how at a 2002 meeting in the White House situation room, he heard Mr Bush say that as soon as the Palestinians had a democratically elected government, their leadership would be ‘less hung-up’ on issues like borders and the status of Jerusalem. Mr Everett was astounded. It was, he told the Washington Post last week, ‘one of the most profoundly ignorant statements anyone has ever uttered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’.” The Independent’s pre-Annapolis assessment is here.

Annapolis: it's Rice's show

Here is Rice’s appointments schedule today, as communicated by the U.S. State Department:

9:15 a.m.   Bilateral with His Excellency Yang Jiechi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.

10:55 a.m.   Attend the President’s bilateral with His Excellency Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel, at the White House.

1:15 p.m.   Attend the President’s meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, at the White House.

4:00 p.m.   Bilateral with His Excellency Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Republic.

5:00 p.m.   Quartet meeting, in the Henry Clay Room (State Department).

6:00 p.m.   Host reception for Annapolis Conference delegations in the John Quincy Adams Room.

7:00 p.m.   Host dinner for Annapolis Conference delegations, in the Benjamin Franklin Room.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: agreement on joint document is not necessary

As the principals prepare for the start of the Annapolis event — beginning with White House meetings and a dinner in Washington tonight – the Associated Press is reporting that “Bush has been buoyed by Arab endorsement of the meeting and the possibilities for broader peacemaking. He will be asked to use his presidential heft to promote a joint blueprint for talks that are to follow, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Sunday“.

The two sides have not agreed on anything like a blueprint yet.

The AP continued: “On more than one occasion, negotiations have splintered over the key questions of Palestinian statehood — final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost homes in Israel following its 1948 creation. The Palestinians want the statement to address those issues in general terms. But Israel wants to leave them for post-conference talks, and has pressed for a broader, vaguer statement of commitment to two states living side-by-side in peace. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wasn’t able to bridge the gaps, even after eight missions to the region this year. If the two sides can’t even manage to come up with a shared statement of objectives, that could augur ill for the future of peace talks, which are to be renewed after seven years of still-simmering violence. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met late Sunday with Rice in a last-ditch effort to wrap up the task. ‘We’re confident there will be a document and we’ll get to Annapolis in good shape on that’, but bargaining may continue behind the scenes on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said”.

But, one person is not worried, according to the AP report: “Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said Palestinians hope to work out a joint document, but that an agreement is not essential because of assurances received in the U.S. invitation to the conference. That invitation, he said, ‘includes all the terms of reference for the future negotiation’ and ‘confirms that both sides are committed’ to putting in place the peace process. ‘This is enough to launch negotiations after the conference’.” The AP report, containing Abed Rabbo’s remarks, is published here.

Abed Rabbo’s remarks do appear to be at odds with the generally-known Palestinian negotiating stance– the Palestinians were widely reported to want a document.

Later, Abed Rabbo told AP: “”We will reach a joint paper today or tomorrow … There is a persistent American effort to have this statement” … Rabbo had said earlier that Palestinians hoped to work out a joint document, but that an agreement was not essential because of assurances received in the U.S. invitation to the conference. That invitation, he said, ‘includes all the terms of reference for the future negotiation’ and ‘confirms that both sides are committed’ to putting in place the peace process. ‘This is enough to launch negotiations after the conference’.”

The AP said that “After months of trying to forge a joint outline, Israel and the Palestinians have made an 11th-hour push in recent days to come up with a statement for presentation at Tuesday’s gathering in Annapolis, Md.  It is to be the first time that Israel, a large group of Arab states and international envoys from around the world will sit down together to try to relaunch a peace process. Later Monday, the conference gets under way with a dinner at the State Department”.
The Agence France Press reported that “Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said the document would be made public later Monday after weeks of behind-the-scenes haggling. ‘This document, which we are due to conclude today with the blessing of the Americans will determine the terms of reference for negotiations — such as the roadmap and international resolutions — and the modalities for negotiations after Annapolis’, he said. And Abed Rabbo said final-status negotiations on core issues such as the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees, would be formally launched in Washington in two days time. ‘The negotiations on the final status will begin on Wednesday in the presence of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’, he told AFP. But a senior Israeli official denied there was an agreement to launch final-status negotiations on Wednesday, which would end a seven-year hiatus. ‘If we still haven’t reached an agreement on a joint document, there is no way we would agree on the launching of final-status talks’, he said. The AFP report on Abed Rabbo’s remarks is here.

Meanwhile, the AP added that “Saeb Erekat, a principal Palestinian negotiator, told The Associated Press on Monday that his side wants, among other things, language providing for the monitoring of two states living side by side in peace and also some specification that a peace treaty should be accomplished before the end of 2008”.

Israeli papers express anxieties about Annapolis

In today’s summary of editorials from the Hebrew Press, the Israeli Government Press Office reports that both of Israel’s major Hebrew-language newspapers “are critical of Israel’s political leaders ahead of the Annapolis Conference”

First, it seems that the largest-circulation daily in Israel, Yediot Ahronot, “compares the Annapolis meeting to the 1938 Munich conference, at which the editors claim that Czechoslovakia was, ‘gang raped’.  The editors opine that the difference between British Prime Minister Chamberlain and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is that Chamberlain abandoned a distant country while Prime Minister Olmert is abandoning his own”.  [Palestinians might equally be able to accuse Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the same…]

Ma’ariv, on the other hand, “complains that Defense Minister Ehud Barak ‘proclaims that he wants peace, but finds justifications for settlement outposts, which torpedo the chance of two states and turn us into a bi-national state.  And we do not have 22 countries’.”   [This last phrase is a reference to the Israeli fear about becoming, eventually — with high Palestinian birth rates (though they are declining) — just one more Arab state…)

Rice: And I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, Hamas won?’”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is the motor, the engine, behind the Annapolis event that starts today, that is now supposed to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian (and perhaps other) peace negotiations leading to the coming into being of a Palestinian State.

Some recent articles are revelatory — there is a very interesting NY Times story, adapted from a book written by Elisabeth Bumiller, “Condoleezza Rice: An American Life”. The book is to be published next month by Random House.

It shows, for one thing, that the American Secretary of State was apparently totally unprepared for — she had apparently never considered, or imagined — a Hamas victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, despite persistent reports that many Palestinians were fed up with what they considered Fatah’s “corruption” (the word is relative, and includes a number of concepts that are not part of the normal understanding of the term — including engaging in peace talks with Israel):

Bumiller writes: “When Ms. Rice became secretary of state in the second term, she told Mr. Bush in a long conversation at Camp David the weekend after the 2004 election that her priority would have to be progress in the Middle East. It was a turning point in more ways than one; Mr. Arafat died a few days later. Although Ms. Rice said in an interview that she had set no conditions when she took the job, her aides said that she had known that her relationship with the president would give her far greater influence to push an agenda, including peacemaking in the Middle East, than Mr. Powell’s. Accordingly, Ms. Rice spent much of 2005 working on the Gaza withdrawal that she thought would contribute to stability. Instead, it was seen as so emboldening the radicals that in early 2006 Hamas won a landslide victory in Palestinian elections over Mr. Abbas and his governing party, Fatah.

Ms. Rice, who had heralded the election as a symbol of the new stirrings of democracy in the Middle East, was so blindsided by the victory that she was startled when she saw a crawl of words on her television screen while exercising on her elliptical trainer the morning after the election: ‘In wake of Hamas victory, Palestinian cabinet resigns’. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s not right’,” Ms. Rice recalled. When the crawl continued, she got off the elliptical trainer and called the State Department. “I said, ‘What happened in the Palestinian elections?’” Ms. Rice recalled. “And they said, ‘Oh, Hamas won.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, Hamas won?’” The Bumiller article in the NYTimes today about Condoleeza Rice in the Middle East is here.

The Bumiller article also shows how Israeli concerns seem much more real and compelling to Secretary Rice, who is now shepherding the Annapolis pre-peace event: “Ms. Rice began her journey as a voice of caution in the first big Middle East crisis the White House faced, in the spring of 2002, when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a large Passover meal in an Israeli beach resort hotel. The militant group Hamas took responsibility, and Israel’s leaders, reacting with fury, sent troops and tanks to storm the Ramallah compound of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader. Mr. Bush responded by dispatching Mr. Powell to the region, even though both believed that there was little the United States could do. “The president said, ‘You’ve got to go, it’s going to be ugly, you’re going to get beaten up, but you’ve got a lot of fire wall to burn up,’” Mr. Powell recalled. Ms. Rice, whose first trip to Israel was in 2000, stayed back in Washington to monitor and rein in Mr. Powell. She was the messenger for Mr. Bush, who had adopted his hands-off policy in Middle East negotiations not only because of Mr. Clinton but because he was reluctant to make too many demands on Israel at that point in his term. So as Mr. Powell traveled from fruitless meetings with Ariel Sharon, then the prime minister, in Jerusalem and Mr. Arafat in Ramallah, Ms. Rice was constantly on the telephone admonishing Mr. Powell to slow down to avoid putting too much pressure on Mr. Sharon, Mr. Powell recalled … By the end of the trip, Ms. Rice even rejected Mr. Powell’s idea of a peace conference in the region, but Mr. Powell dug in. “I finally told her, late at night, ‘You may not like it, but I’m the one who’s here, and I’ve got to say something,’” Mr. Powell said he told Ms. Rice. He announced the conference before returning to Washington, but without support from the White House, the idea was dead … The Bush administration might have continued with bursts of attention followed by drift had it not been for the looming war in Iraq. By June 2002, Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice realized that before the Europeans and Arabs would support an American-led invasion, the administration would have to prove that it cared about more in the Middle East than the security of Israel.

“Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice began to engage in a major rethinking. The result was a speech, a major departure in American policy, that called for Palestinian elections and demanded the ouster of Mr. Arafat before the United States would support a Palestinian state. Ms. Rice saw it as the beginning of a notion that one day there could be a democratic Arab Middle East, but Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney, who were strongly opposed to anything that might require Israel to accept a Palestinian state that could become a source for terrorism on its border, objected … Mr. Rumsfeld eventually agreed with the speech, but the vice president [Dick Cheney] was still opposed on the day that Mr. Bush delivered it, June 24, 2002 … Over the next year, the peace efforts languished as Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush focused on the coming invasion of Iraq.When Israeli tanks and troops surrounded Mr. Arafat’s compound again in September 2002, this time in response to back-to-back suicide bombings, Ms. Rice viewed the siege as damaging to the administration’s campaign to enlist support in the Arab world for the war in Iraq. In a White House meeting with Dov Weissglas, then a senior adviser to Mr. Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, Ms. Rice demanded, successfully, that the Israelis withdraw. “She said in her way, politely but very firmly, that the United States was trying to put together the coalition prior to the invasion of Iraq, and our operation at that time was very disturbing,” Mr. Weissglas said in a recent interview.

It was not until the eve of the war in March 2003, and then only under pressure from Tony Blair, the British prime minister, that the White House finally endorsed the “road map,” a peace plan of incremental steps that was to lead to a Palestinian state in three years. Mr. Bush said he was adopting the plan because the Palestinians had slated Mr. Abbas to take the job of prime minister and negotiate with Israel. By the spring of 2004, when Mr. Bush agreed to support a plan by Mr. Sharon to withdraw Israeli settlers and forces from Gaza, Mr. Sharon asked for something more that set off a huge fight within the administration: American recognition that Palestinian refugees and their descendants who had fled in the 1940s would have a right of return to a new Palestinian state, but not to Israel itself.

Ms. Rice agreed that allowing Palestinians to return to Israel would overwhelm the Jewish population and effectively obliterate Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Mr. Cheney and his allies supported Mr. Sharon’s request, but the State Department had always taken the position that the issue — with the final borders of a Palestinian state and how Jerusalem might be shared by the two sides — should be decided through negotiations, not by fiat from Washington. Aware of the debate within the Bush administration, Tzipi Livni, now the Israeli foreign minister but then the minister for immigrant absorption, went to plead her case to Ms. Rice in Washington. “I had the opportunity to convince Rice,” Ms. Livni said in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year. Ms. Rice said she understood the issue was “very, very core” to Ms. Livni, and acknowledged that Ms. Livni’s appeal “was taken into account in the president’s words” when Mr. Bush made a pivotal announcement, in April 2004, that any “just, fair and realistic framework” for Israel would mean that Palestinians would have to settle in their own state — an enormous benefit to Mr. Sharon.

The Bumiller article in the NYTimes, adapted from her forthcoming book, is here.

The McClatchy newspaper group is asking: “Can Rice save her legacy with ‘Hail Mary’ pass on Mideast?“. The article says that “An ardent football fan, Rice is hoping to rewrite her legacy in the next 14 months, beginning with what amounts to a Hail Mary pass this week in a Mideast peace conference she’s organized for Annapolis, Md.”

Rice has regularly said that the Annapolis event will not be just a photo opportunity, and will be more than just a photo op. But, the McClatchy story questions that, too: “The Annapolis meeting, Rice said last week, will launch negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on an eventual Palestinian state, rather than conclude any agreements … It remains to be seen whether Annapolis is ‘going to be much more than a photo opportunity, with reaffirmation of a two-state solution’, Quandt said [William Quandt, a University of Virginia scholar who worked on the first Camp David peace talks under President Jimmy Carter]. ‘And then they will go home’.” The McClatchy story can be seen here.

Others have also seized on Rice’s line. Some have quipped that Annapolis will be more than a photo op, it will be “a photo op with coffee”, or “a photo op with dinner” …

In another article in the NYTimes yesterday, Steven Erlanger wrote: “The big American idea [for Annapolis and the day after], to try to deal with the Israeli need for security and the Palestinian need for substantive, concrete changes on the ground in the West Bank, is to work to carry out the first stage of the 2003 road map plan simultaneously with the negotiations on a final peace treaty, both processes to take a year. The road map, accepted by all parties but dormant, set performance-related conditions for progress toward peace. There is an implicit hope that the two can be dealt with separately, as if progress or failure on one track will not affect the other. But of course they will. The road map calls for a freeze on all settlement activity, including natural growth, and the removal of some 24 outposts set up illegally after March 2001. Mr. Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been negotiating with the settlers to remove the outposts in return for legalizing others; they also want to move some settlers to the big ‘settlement blocs’ that Israel intends to keep. Even Palestinian negotiators, according to senior American officials, privately admit Israel will keep some of those settlement blocs. But the Palestinians define a settlement freeze strictly. According to papers prepared by the Palestinian negotiating team, the Palestinians say the road map forbids moving people from one settlement to another before any final status agreement. They also say a freeze means a halt to all new construction, including expanding existing buildings or building new bypass roads for settlers, and a halt to all forms of Israeli assistance to the settlers, including financial incentives, land allocations, building permits and the like — even in the settlement blocs Israel intends to keep. Israeli officials say that, for Annapolis, Mr. Olmert is prepared to announce a general freeze on settlement construction. But how detailed will it be? And how much will he dare politically while he is trying to negotiate the larger agreement? Two years ago, the Israeli government, as Ms. Rice will remember, was also prepared, in order to please her, to sign her agreement on Gaza movement and access, including allowing ‘safe passage’ for bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank. Even before Hamas won elections and then took over Gaza, Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli defense concerns killed that agreement, despite previous American efforts to reform Palestinian security forces. And Israeli officials made it clear that they had never intended to start the bus convoys, which they considered an unwarranted risk, in any case”. Steven Erlanger’s astute analysis of the dynamics of the Annapolis pre-peace event for the NYTimes is published here.

So, if the Israelis never intended to start the bus convoys (between the West Bank and Gaza) — despite having signed an agreement last November that they would do so — what can we really expect now????