Middle East Roundtable
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Edition 46 Volume 5 - December 13, 2007
Annapolis: the regional perspective
• Across the board, a travesty - Akram Baker
There can rarely have been such a pointless and potentially counterproductive meeting.
• Syria gains, Lebanon loses, US flops - Riad Kahwaji
For the March 14 Forces, the timing of Annapolis could not have been worse.
• Old fears surface again in Jordan - Rana Sabbagh-Gargour
Officials from King Abdullah down harbor no illusion that Tel Aviv is able or willing to compromise for peace
• The view from Tehran - Sadegh Zibakalam
There can be little doubt about the opposition of the Iranian regime to the Annapolis gathering.
Across the board, a travesty
In spite of Arab participation, the question of whether George W. Bush's sad little gathering of Middle East "leaders" in Annapolis, Maryland at the beginning of December constituted progress is really a no-brainer: it did not.
It could have, had it been convened four, five, six or seven years ago, when at least some of those present had more than single digit approval ratings or weren't the lamest of ducks. It could have, had it been based on the Arab peace initiative signed in Beirut (it seems like such a long time ago) and not on some desperate attempt at last-minute legacy improvement. No, this isn't progress, it is quite the opposite. In truth, there can rarely have been such a pointless and potentially counterproductive meeting.
Annapolis has been trumpeted by the Bush administration and a number of delusional or agenda-driven pundits as a success because a number of Arab foreign ministers attended, most notably from Saudi Arabia and Syria. But there is little surprising in this. The Saudis have been America's most reliable fundamentalist ally for more than a generation and they simply answered the call from upstairs. Sure, members of the House of Saud don't often "meet" in public with Israelis, but it really matters little that they happened to be in the same building together. The Saudis also attended to spite Hamas for trashing the agreement brokered by King Abdullah in Mecca last year and wanted to throw a bit of sand in Khaled Meshaal's face.
As for Bashar Assad, he was simply happy to be invited. Syria has been so out of step with just about everything, that for Syrians, Annapolis probably did seem like progress. From Assad's perspective, being on the White House guest list was a lot better than heading up Vice President Dick Cheney's "Terrorist State Sponsors" list. The Syrians have no bargaining chips anymore, not even Lebanon. All they have is a country flooded with Iraqi refugees, skyrocketing prices, a miserable economy, and no political influence (though they still have great food).
These Arab ministers came under the banner of "The Arab Follow-Up Committee", a misnomer if ever there was one. What are they following up on? Failure? Spinelessness? Corruption? The Arab presence in Maryland might have had an impact if they had said to Bush beforehand, "Sure we'll come and shore you up, George. But only if you throw whatever is left of your much-diminished weight behind ending the Israeli occupation. No more 'talk about talking'; we all know what needs to be done, so let's do it. Otherwise, we might as well just stay here at home and kick our own people around." If something along those lines had occurred, there might have been a small chance of Annapolis being something other than a perverse photo-op of aging has-beens.
The facts are:
* Ehud Olmert is so weak he makes American coffee seem strong. He has more corruption allegations hanging over his settlement-building head than an ex- Nigerian finance ministry official. The only thing Olmert is capable of doing is building more settlements and choking already miserable Gaza. He should have resigned a long time ago.
* Mahmound Abbas is president of nothing. He can't even leave his compound in Ramallah without asking permission from Olmert first. He should have quit three years ago and told the Americans and the Israelis that he had no desire to play the Bantustan.
* George Bush has no credibility. Period. The only power he has is that of his office (which he diminished substantially) and the (small?) fact that he has a few hundred thousand troops in Arab and Islamic countries. When a bully smiles and invites you for apple pie, you go because ticking him off could be bad.
* The Arab world is divided and weak. The only countries making "progress" are those that have completely given up on "independent" politics and are preoccupied with building their version of Las Vegas meets Singapore in the Gulf as quasi-US protectorates.
A friend accuses me of being negative on Annapolis because I was born in Virginia and never really liked anything from Maryland. But the truth is that I am negative because of my mother's dictum that what matters is what a person does and not what he or she says. Wise woman. If we put the participants of the Annapolis summit to my mother's credibility test they would all fail.
Bush can say all he wants about peace and a Palestinian state, but unless he is willing to do the heavy lifting with Israel and its lobby it means less than zero. Olmert can blab on about not wanting Israel to become an apartheid state (as if it wasn't already), but as long as he encourages it, why should we believe him? With regards to the Arab world, there is such a glaring lack of any kind of leadership, that, unfortunately, it doesn't even matter what they say. The Arabs collectively took a truly significant step back in Beirut in 2002 with their peace initiative, offering Israel comprehensive peace and recognition with the entire Arab world in exchange for an end to the Israeli occupation of 1967. However, they dropped the ball almost immediately afterward at the first signs of resistance. What a shame.- Published 13/12/2007 © bitterlemons- international.org
Akram Baker is a former senior advisor to Faisal Husseini. He is an independent political analyst and co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills.
Syria gains, Lebanon loses, US flops
The Middle East peace conference at Annapolis was meant to be about reviving and speeding up the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. But for officials in Syria the event was a long-awaited opportunity, while Lebanese political factions hoped Annapolis would point them in the right direction. In the end, the post-Annapolis political scene is even more complex and the situation just as volatile.
The Syrians were happy at last to witness the international community reopening channels of communication and seeking their consent to show up at Annapolis. Damascus put forward its conditions for attending, e.g., adding the Israel- occupied Golan Heights to the meeting's agenda. Though the Syrian conditions were not fully met, Damascus could not miss out on the opportunity. Still, as a show of solidarity with Iran, which pressured to boycott the event, the Syrians sent a low-level delegation to Annapolis.
Yet Damascus was reaping the benefits of Annapolis even before the conference began. Arab and European officials re-endorsed the Baath Party regime and ended the US-imposed western and Arab isolation of Syria. The move helped the Syrian regime create the impression it wanted to plant with its neighbors and regional opponents: Syria is back in the international club.
As for the Lebanese, especially the western-backed pro-government factions known as the March 14 Forces, the timing of Annapolis could not have been worse. After enjoying undisputed strong international support, especially from the West and most Arab countries, the March 14 Forces found themselves in an odd situation. Their western allies, led by France, were working out a deal with their arch foe Damascus, which together with Tehran is regarded as patron of the Lebanese opposition factions better known as the March 8 Forces. Sources within March 14 said some of its leaders concluded that the Americans were using the French to strike a deal with Syria that would include reestablishing Damascus' political influence in Lebanon.
This belief within the March 14 Forces grew stronger when they saw the Americans move to the sideline and heard French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner trying to market Syrian-backed presidential candidates. Kouchner tried before and after Annapolis to mediate a deal among Lebanese factions on a new president. Statements by Syrian officials regarding a roadmap reached between Paris and Damascus to normalize ties between the two countries undermined unity within March 14 and led to the current status quo in Lebanon, whereby a constitutional crisis has emerged after the parties there failed to elect a new president.
Annapolis was another failed attempt by the United States to move Damascus away from Tehran and establish a grand Arab-western-Israeli alliance against Iran and its allies in the region. The Lebanese opposition forces, especially the predominantly Shi'ite groups Amal and Hizballah, received a strong boost with the Syrian-western rapprochement, which made them toughen their demands and resist making concessions. Subsequently, Tehran benefited without moving an inch.
The conclusion for many Lebanese was that the Syrian-Iranian patrons proved to be more reliable and politically cunning than the US-led western backers of the March 14 Forces. Many Lebanese still have not forgotten how many times the US has bailed out on them in the past and left them to meet their fate against Syria and its allies. Even Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement and leader of the largest Christian opposition bloc in parliament, keeps reminding March 14 leaders in his public statements of the need to maintain good ties with Syria and not become too close to Washington, "because you will soon have to make trips to Masnaa (border crossing point to Damascus)".
Annapolis was also cited by Lebanese Christian opposition figures as proof of how the US and the West are conspiring to resettle the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This issue causes a great deal of concern to multi-confessional Lebanese society due to the fact that Palestinians are mostly Sunni Muslims. Israel has insisted on refusing the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in any future deal.
So nearly a month after Annapolis, Syria remains a strong ally of Iran, Lebanon is still in political turmoil and without a president, Hizballah and its allies are stronger, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria remain pawns in the hands of regional powers, the Europeans have not gained an inch in Lebanon and Syria, while the United States has lost a lot of its stature and credibility as a reliable ally with a clear foreign policy and political goals.- Published 13/12/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Riad Kahwaji is director general of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, and the Middle East Bureau chief for Defense News.
Old fears surface again in Jordan
Skeptical Jordan will continue to work for meaningful peace talks culminating in a two-state solution by the end of 2008: a strategic goal to ensure the long-term survival of a kingdom whose destiny has been shaped by the Arab-Israel conflict. But in the country, where half the population is of Palestinian origin, officials from King Abdullah down harbor no illusion that Tel Aviv is able or willing to compromise for peace after the feeble outcome of the Annapolis Middle East meeting on November 27.
Many officials fear that Israeli right wingers and their influential neo- conservative allies in Washington will soon revisit the "Jordan option", which holds that involving Amman in the Palestinian issue is the best hope for stability in the West Bank. This decades-old option is vehemently opposed by Jordan, the former ruler of the West Bank. King Abdullah, unlike his late father, has no ambitions for reviving a Jordanian role over the territory because it would spell "political suicide" for the kingdom. Deepening the demographic imbalance would leave the "East Bankers", the traditional backbone of the Hashemite dynasty, a minority battling for rights.
Backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the United Arab Emirates--the so-called "Arab moderate" camp--King Abdullah had been lobbying his ally, US President George W. Bush, for over a year to put the Palestinian issue at the center of American policy after a seven-year hiatus. The camp maintains that the conflict remains the root cause of all regional crises and of global terror. By moving on the peace front, this camp argues, the rug will be pulled from under the feet of the influential hardline camp, led by Iran, and restore some of the face lost in the eyes of a street questioning the wisdom behind keeping up the peace option that has failed to resolve the lingering conflict.
King Abdullah traveled to Washington this summer and appealed in a historic speech to the US Congress for Washington to tackle the Palestinian problem. He also made a surprise visit to Damascus a few weeks ago to mend fences with Syrian leader Bashar Assad, after four years of cool relations, and convinced him to send a delegation to Annapolis.
Jordan and its Arab allies, however, had wanted the meeting to conclude with a timetable for the creation of an independent Palestinian state by the end of Bush's term in office. And they were looking for a binding statement of principles that addressed thorny core issues including Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security and water. Instead, the meeting produced a consensual last- minute "joint statement"--no more than an agreement to kick off negotiations for a two-state solution by the end of 2008--while the US only promised movement on the "first phase" of the internationally-accepted road map, targets that should have been implemented three years ago to change realities on the ground and to help build confidence.
Worse, Bush announced US commitment to "the security of Israel as a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people"--wiping the floor with the rights of about 1.25 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. And hardly before the delegates had gone home, more disappointments began to surface. The US administration prevented the UN Security Council from endorsing the lukewarm Annapolis statement, partly to appease Israel, while Israeli politicians began saying the summit's political statement was non-binding. Tel Aviv then announced plans to construct 307 housing units in East Jerusalem--counter to the "letter and the spirit" of the Annapolis meeting.
The current state of Palestinian and Israeli politics, meanwhile, will not support the compromises necessary for a credible breakthrough that can be backed by a suspicious anti-Israeli/anti-American street. The gap in perception and definition over phase one of the road map is enormous. And the European Union will shy away from criticizing Israel.
"Jordan is under no peace illusion. But it has to keep pursuing its consistent foreign policy goals through engaging positively with the US, the Europeans and Israelis, and to widen the base of Arab consensus and diplomatic options to protect our interests," a senior Jordanian official told this writer recently.
"Suffocation and stagnation of the peace process will be the name of the game, and this might result in reviving the classical concept of a functional division of labor between Jordan and Israel over the West Bank. This may pave the way for renewed pressure on Jordan for discussions of a federation or a confederation before the creation of an independent Palestinian state."
Complicating the situation is growing regional instability and disorder caused by America's inability to make up its mind on how best to contain Iran, which has been allowed to develop a say in the region's flashpoints, from Palestine to Iraq and Lebanon, since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
Adding to Arab worries is the dwindling possibility of an imminent US attack on Iran in the changing dynamics of Middle East politics after a US intelligence report released early December said that Tehran does not have a nuclear weapons program. Many Arab moderates fear that Washington is trying to contain Iran at their expense by deepening regional integration and fostering a framework where all leading powers see it in their interests to preserve the status quo. This means that the majority Arab moderates will stand to lose out again, because they are the weakest link in a new region being shaped by Iran, Israel and the US.
In the meantime, Jordan has no choice but to focus on improving the living standards of its 6.2 million population ahead of an imminent increase in the price of fuel and oil derivatives that will send inflation rates skyrocketing and ignite local anger. For now, Jordan's main priority is to restore unity at home, create a social safety net and improve basic health, education and other services needed by all Jordanians, including Palestinian refugees. This is key to weathering domestic and foreign challenges lying ahead.
A new security-technocratic government is tasked with looking after socio- economic development, while the king, his new Royal Court chief and the powerful head of the General Intelligence Department handle foreign policy and regional security threats. The three top officials now speak the same language after years of bickering.- Published 13/12/2007 © bitterlemons- international.org
Rana Sabbagh-Gargour is an independent Jordanian journalist and former chief editor of The Jordan Times.
The view from Tehran
There can be little doubt about the opposition of the Iranian regime to the Annapolis gathering. The regime played down the conference's significance completely and didn't mention the fact that more than 52 countries and organizations attended.
Syria's decision to attend came as a big disappointment to Tehran, although the Iranians played down the significance of that development too. A leading hard- line Islamist newspaper wrote in its editorial that "our Syrian brethren decided to attend Annapolis after the last minute intervention by the US president promised that the Golan Heights would be on the conference's agenda." The paper continued, "of course the Syrians knew that the Americans were lying as usual, but they merely wanted to demonstrate to the more conservative and pro-US Arab regimes the untrustworthy nature of the Americans."
The Iranian media, including the more independent newspapers as well as the opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, unanimously argued that Annapolis was not a genuine attempt by the US administration to solve the Middle East crisis, nor for that matter to resolve the deadlock between the Palestinians and Israelis. The speaker of the Iranian Majlis stated that had the Americans been sincere in solving the current deadlock and helping the Palestinians, they could have begun by pressing the "Zionists" to lift the year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip that is slowly suffocating innocent Palestinian women and children. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that "Annapolis has failed even before it starts." President Ahmadinezhad actually telephoned Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to urge him not "to discredit Arabs and Muslims by going to Annapolis".
Ayatollah Ali Janaty, the Friday prayer imam of Tehran and a leading hard-line clerical leader, stated in the Friday prayer gathering prior to the conference that Annapolis was "a travesty of justice and international norms of behavior. The real representatives of the people living in the region who are involved in the actual conflicts in the region are absent from the conference. Instead, the US president has called his lackeys and servants who are irrelevant and whom the people do not recognize as their true leaders and representatives. Where is Hamas, who represents the people of Palestine? Where are Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and Hizballah, who represent more than half of the people of Lebanon? "
Having dismissed Annapolis before it even began, Iranian leaders and the media tried to explain to Iranians why the US had decided to convene the conference. One explanation held that Annapolis was an attempt to save Israel after the dramatic defeat it suffered in Lebanon. Another, that Israel's defeat in Lebanon, Hamas' victory in the occupied territories and the Americans' defeat in Iraq had led to an emerging new geopolitical configuration in the region. Thus, Annapolis was an attempt to prepare an agenda for waging war against Iran, Hamas and Hizballah.
A third explanation revolved around the situation of the US in Iraq: The Americans' principal objective in convening Annapolis was an attempt to cover up their defeat there, which had completely discredited the US in the eyes of the people of the region. The pro-American regimes in the region had lost their faith and traditional confidence in Washington. This new development could lead to serious as well as dangerous consequences not only for the US, but more importantly for the entire western world. It could result in the conservative Arab regimes distancing themselves from Washington and adopting a foreign policy more independent from the western powers. More importantly, it could result in strengthening the position of Iran in the region and persuading Arab leaders to adopt a more conciliatory approach toward the Islamic republic.
By convening Annapolis and urging every Arab state including Syria to attend, the US was trying to convey a message to everybody in the region, and particularly to its Arab allies, that it was still the key power in the region and that no one should doubt this. The US was not only trying to reassert its lost credibility through Annapolis; the Americans were also trying to deliver the important message that everyone who did not support them, was critical of their policies or, worse still, dared to resist them had no place on the new Middle East map that Washington was trying to draw. The news that Israeli and Palestinian leaders Olmert and Abbas had agreed at Annapolis to resume peace talks after a seven-year hiatus received very little attention in Iran.
It was broadly against this political background that Ahmadinezhad attended the Gulf Cooperation Council conference at Doha less than a week after the Annapolis gathering. This was the first time an Iranian president was an official guest of the GCC states since the Islamic revolution in 1979. The affair was treated as a huge victory for Iran over the US and all the efforts the latter had invested in convening Annapolis. Whatever reasons the Arab Gulf state leaders might have had for deciding to invite Ahmadinezhad to Doha, this was interpreted in Tehran as a clear manifestation of the failure of Annapolis. Under a huge color photo of Ahmadinezhad holding hands with Arab leaders, a leading hard-line Iranian newspaper proclaimed, "this is Iran's reply to George Bush's Annapolis."- Published 13/12/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.
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