Palestinian Affairs: Muddling toward Tuesday's Middle East huddle

Each of the Arab leaders invited to Annapolis has his own problems, most of which don't involve Israel.

Jordan abdullah 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Jordan abdullah 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The overall feeling in the Arab world in general and among the Palestinians in particular is that the United States is dragging the Arabs to the Annapolis peace conference against their will. Several Arab leaders, including Palestinian Authority representatives, have been trying over the past few weeks to persuade the Americans that this is not the appropriate time for such conferences, but to no avail. The main reason cited by the Arab leaders is that they don't believe that the conference will lead to a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process, largely due to Israel's refusal to fully withdraw to the pre-1967 borders and accept other demands, such as a total freeze in settlement construction, the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners and acknowledging the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. But as much as they are afraid of Israel's "intransigence," Washington's Arab allies fear the deep divisions and infighting that continue to plague the Arab world. Their major concern is that the Bush administration was planning to exploit the conference to create a US-led coalition to confront Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah. Moreover, the Arab leaders are concerned that Washington would exert heavy pressure on them to normalize relations with Israel even before a final settlement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians. The Arab masses are clearly still not prepared for such a dramatic gesture. Not only that. Divisions and internal squabbling in the Arab world are so strong that it would have been better to hold a conference on making peace among the Arabs themselves, rather than with Israel. Indeed, each one of the key Arab parties that has been invited to the Annapolis gathering has its own problems. The Palestinians are going to the conference at the peak of the bloody power struggle between Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction and Hamas. In addition to Hamas, many other Palestinians are questioning Abbas's right to represent them at a peace conference where core issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and the refugee problem, are once again on the table. In short, their argument is that he does not have a mandate to make any concessions to Israel on important and fateful issues. On top of all this, Abbas's negotiating team appears to be divided not only over the Palestinian strategy at the conference, but also over which one of its members will go to Annapolis. The head of the negotiating team, Ahmed Qurei [Abu Ala] is said to be at odds with Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of the leading negotiators. Sources close to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah also have it that Abbas and his prime minister, Salaam Fayad, have been engaged in a behind-the-scenes power struggle for some time now. According to the sources, Fayad, who ran as head of the independent Third Way party in the January 2006 parliamentary elections, is already preparing himself for the post-Abbas era. Backed by the US and EU, Fayad has managed to consolidate his power in the past few months, much to the dismay of several top officials surrounding Abbas. Some of these officials are concerned that failure at Annapolis would undermine Abbas's authority, prompting the Palestinian public in the West Bank to search for another leader. And since Fayad is the one who's paying salaries and attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid, there is no doubt that many Palestinians in the West Bank would prefer to see him sitting in Abbas's seat. MANY ARAB governments believe that the US is making a big mistake by forcing Abbas to attend the peace conference at a time when he hardly has control over what's happening inside his own Fatah faction. Some Palestinians continue to refer to Abbas as the "mayor of Ramallah" because of his limited control over the rest of the West Bank. The Saudis, for their part, are angry with Palestinians because of the collapse of the Mecca Agreement between Fatah and Hamas. The short-lived agreement, which was reached earlier this year under the auspices of King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, only exacerbated tensions between the two parties until Hamas eventually managed to drive Abbas's supporters out of the Gaza Strip. But the Saudis have other grievances. They are unhappy with the fact that Egypt has returned to center stage as a major mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. The Saudi leaders would have liked to appear as the key player in the region by leading the Arab world into the peace process with Israel. But now that President Hosni Mubarak has stolen the show, all that's left for the Saudis is to keep a low profile at Annapolis. Mubarak, who has willingly taken upon himself the task of persuading the Arabs to attend the Annapolis conference, is eager to win the West's support for the rise of his son, Jamal, to power. Mubarak is facing increased criticism at home because of his crackdown on political opponents and reformists. Also, he continues to face the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood - a group that is vehemently opposed to any peace deal with Israel, and whose members have vowed to scrap the peace treaty with Israel once they take over. Yet the eyes of the Arab world are set these days on the ongoing crisis over Lebanon's presidential elections. Syrian meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs is threatening to trigger another civil war in that country; and the Saudis, together with other Arab governments, are trying to avoid an explosion. The Syrians are determined to prevent the election of any anti-Syrian president in Lebanon. That's why they have been killing one Lebanese parliamentarian after another in the past few months. Many anti-Syrian Lebanese parliament members have since gone into hiding. Syria's demand that the Annapolis conference tackle the issue of the Golan Heights seems absurd in light of Damascus's growing obsession with Lebanon. The Syrians want to go back to Lebanon, and that's why they couldn't care less about the Golan Heights, which they know they are likely to retrieve once they come to the negotiating table with Israel. Most of the Arab countries have been playing "hard to get" in the past few weeks, with some of their leaders enjoying watching Bush and Condoleezza Rice chasing them to ask them to attend the parley. Washington's Arab allies have been withholding their response to the invitation to come to Annapolis with the hope that they would be able to extract some kind of concessions from the Americans, including financial and military aid. Yet, as the date for the conference nears, most of the Arab countries appear to have abandoned their previous conditions for participating. Among these conditions: a clear timetable for the implementation of an agreement that would be reached at Annapolis, and guarantees that Israel would commit itself to a full withdrawal. "All these demands have been dropped, one after the other, in the wake of American pressure on the Arabs," wrote Abdel Bari Atwan, the savvy editor of the pan-Arab Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. "The Arab delegations are going to the conference without knowing anything about its agenda or the issues that are going to be discussed there. The Arabs are being dragged to this conference with their eyes wide open, because the word 'no' does not exist in their dealings with the US administration. The Arabs are going to Annapolis, though they know that the chances of failure are greater than the chances of success. The failure of the Camp David summit, which was held five months before the end of Bill Clinton's term in office, led to the eruption of the second intifada in 2000. The failure of Annapolis will lead to an all-out explosion in the Arab world, especially if the purpose of the conference is to provide cover-up for US plans to deal a military strike to Iran or Syria or Hamas or Hizbullah."