JEDDAH, 29 November 2007 — Saudis, Palestinians and other Arabs have reacted with little optimism to the pledge by the Palestinians and the Israelis to seek a peace deal by the end of 2008 at the US-sponsored Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
“I am hopeful that somehow the concerned parties will be able to produce peace and a viable Palestinian state, but I have been hopeful before on several similar occasions,” said Dhahran-based Saudi journalist Khalid Altowelli.
This time he is much less optimistic. “With an American president in his last year in office, an Israeli prime minister lagging far behind in opinion polls and a Palestinian president without Gaza under his wing, things don’t look good at all,” said Altowelli.
“It is natural to be despondent given the fact that we have had such conferences and pledges in the past ... They came to nothing in the end,” said Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Al-Uwaisheg, a Saudi political analyst based in Riyadh.
However, Al-Uwaisheg said that being pessimistic did not mean one should stop the struggle for peace and an independent state for the Palestinians.
“One must remember that time is not on the side of Palestinians and, by extension, the Arabs,” he said. “We should keep trying to mold the international opinion in favor of the Palestinians.”
Al-Uwaisheg said Arabs were left with very few options.
“With the divisions in the Palestinian leadership, the increased settlement activity and the creation of the apartheid wall, we are in a tight situation... The US push for peace, therefore, becomes critical,” he said. “I hope it breaks the log jam.”
On whether or not the Annapolis conference was political gimmickry on the part of the US administration, Al-Uwaisheg said: “President George W. Bush seems serious. The key is the timeframe for the creation of the new Palestinian state. Being in the last phase of his second term, Bush has nothing to lose. There is no pressure on him personally because he doesn’t have to run for a third term. He doesn’t have to cave in to any lobby, however powerful. And so the chances of him succeeding are higher than him failing.”
But Dr. Isam Shanti, a well-known Jeddah-based Palestinian political analyst and columnist, said the conference was aimed at enhancing the diminishing political profile of Bush.
“Annapolis is aimed at providing a cover to the series of American foreign policy failures in Iraq, Afghanistan as well as the war on terror worldwide,” he said.
Al-Uwaisheg said both the Arabs and the Israelis have to move fast on the ground. “They should not lose any time,” he said. “They should not allow extremists to derail this process. We have seen in the past how extremists on both sides punctured the chances for peace.”
Shanti said Annapolis was a good opportunity to bring the issue of Palestine back to the center stage. “The importance of this meeting lies in the fact that the Palestinians can speak to the world about their cause and ask the international community in general and the Americans in particular to deal with their plight based on the international legitimacy and the relevant UN resolutions,” he said.
Annapolis, Shanti felt, emphasizes the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative. “It is a comprehensive peace deal that envisions the ways and means for a final settlement of not only the Palestine-Israel conflict but also the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.
Shanti underlined the importance of the huge presence of the Arabs at Annapolis.
“It is useful in the sense that they can play a supportive role politically and diplomatically and use their political and economic leverage to support the Palestinian cause in general and the Palestinian negotiators in particular,” Shanti said.
Arabic newspapers in the region, meanwhile, were caustic in their comments on the conference, reports AFP.
“Apparently, every American president seeks not to miss the peace train and hangs on to the last wagon by trying to end their mandate with a Middle East peace deal,” wrote the Cairo-based Al-Akhbar newspaper.
The newspaper compared Annapolis, Bush’s biggest push for Middle East peace since taking office in 2001, to the Camp David II talks near the end of US President Bill Clinton’s term in 2000, which ended in failure.
“Bush has seized the opportunity and repeated the same attempt at Annapolis ... in the hope of realizing a historic agreement that will erase the mess he has in Iraq,” added Al-Akhbar.
Syria’s Tishrin newspaper was equally skeptical: “Over the past seven years the American administration has used the language of war without ever learning the language of dialogue, raising the legitimate question of how serious the Bush administration is regarding Annapolis.”
The paper asked whether the US government “has finally learned the errors of its policies, which caused the Republicans to lose their majority in Congress and has generated hatred of Americans.”
Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper was also scathing in its assessment.
“Annapolis is simply one more step along the path of failure and stupidity followed by the American administration in the Middle East,” it said. “The actual result will be close to zero.”