Article published Dec 5, 2007
The Washington Times
Unexpected fruit from Annapolis
December 5, 2007
By Claude Salhani - President Bush most likely never imagined the Annapolis Middle East peace conference he convened last week on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay would yield the results it did. He hoped to jump-start the comatose peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis with the expectation of reaching an agreement for a two-state solution before the end of his mandate, now just over a year away. Palestinian and Israeli leaders walked away from the peace conference promising the American president they would "push for peace."
In political parlance that is equivalent to saying "the check is in the mail." Indeed, the Palestinians, the Israelis and all the others who made the trek for this conference that lasted but a few hours may go back to their respective countries and life will pick up as before. There may be periodic meetings between the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president, but for peace to become a reality the following must happen:
• Israel must agree to withdraw to the pre-June 5, 1967, borders. Or for those who like to argue there were no established borders at that time, let's say Israel must agree to return to the positions it held prior to the start of hostilities of June 5, 1967.
• Israel must withdraw from all settlements in the West Bank, except for one or two, and may compensate the Palestinians by giving them land elsewhere.
• Israel must agree to share the city of Jerusalem, which would become the capital of both states.
• Israelis and the Palestinians must resolve the issue of the Palestinian refugees' right of return, possibly one of the biggest hurdles in the negotiations. This concerns mainly those living in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
• The Palestinians, for their part, must convince all parties in the West Bank and Gaza that violence won't solve the problem. All Palestinian parties must agree to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state within secure borders. But President Abbas does not control Hamas in the Gaza Strip nor in the West Bank, for that matter.
• The Palestinians would need to reorganize their domestic intelligence service and police forces to combat those who would like to see the continuation of the conflict.
A major setback in any peace negotiations between Israelis and Arabs is the "purposely delaying tactics" of the Israelis. The Jewish state likes to drag its feet, hoping to buy time, because delineating the final frontier would restrict where Israeli settlements could be erected. Such a move would not go down well with the settlers, an important electoral segment.
The same holds true for Jerusalem, which no Israeli wants divided ever again. In short, the stumbling blocks will prevent a quick solution to the dispute, unless leaders on both sides demonstrate creativity and courage.
But the Annapolis peace meeting — as President Bush first called what turned out to be a mega-gathering bringing together nearly 50 countries and representatives, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, along with Israel — produced unexpected results.
The Annapolis conference, strangely enough, received the full support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Though Mr. Putin was caught up in his own election campaign back home, he devoted time and energy to ensure that the conference had a better chance of success. How?
According to Russian sources, Mr. Putin personally telephoned Syrian President Bashar Assad to convince him Damascus should participate in the Annapolis conference. This information was corroborated by high-ranking European diplomats in Washington to this reporter.
Why would the Russian president become so involved to help out the president of the United States? The answer in a moment.
And while Moscow and Riyadh are politically separated by millions of light years, much like the Russian president, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has also invested much political capital in ascertaining a successful conference in Annapolis. Just like Russian pressure on Damascus convinced Mr. Assad to send his deputy foreign minister, similarly, the Saudi king's political clout brought a total of 16 Arab countries — including Syria — face-to-face with Israeli leaders.
What motivated those two politically opposed leaders to act in unison with the European Union, the United States and Israel? The fact that they share a common enemy — Islamist extremists.
Mr. Putin and King Abdullah, like Mr. Bush and Britain's Gordon Brown, are well aware of the dangers of allowing the spread of al Qaeda's ideas and ideals. The Russian army has had firsthand experience in fighting Islamists in Afghanistan, well before United States and NATO forces set foot in the country. It's an experience the Russians do not want to repeat.
Moscow and Riyadh, much like Washington, London, Paris, Madrid, Istanbul and other countless cities that have experienced firsthand devastating attacks by Islamist terrorists, also agree on a fundamental focus point of the Middle East conflict: Until the Palestinians have their own state, the continued unrest in the Middle East will provide extremist Islamists a perfect recruiting poster for their cause.
The Russians, much like the Saudis, and indeed the United States, have seen the results of homegrown terrorism, and it was not pretty. Ironically, the Islamists, contrary to what they had hoped, ended up acting as a unifier between the United States and Russia, two former Cold War warriors. At the same time, they pushed the vast majority of the Arab world into the same camp with the Western-Russian alliance, both sides of which now agree they have a new common enemy — the extremists within Islam.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times