The Israeli-Palestinian summit: a very short film

The media around the world made a big deal out of yesterday’s summit, saying this time there is a real chance for peace in the Middle East. But everything which was said and agreed to yesterday was more or less the same as the agreements of the past, none of which worked. This summit will end like the others, in failure. It is a film we have seen before.

In the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh the Prime Ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) made announcements yesterday at a summit meeting. Abbas announced a cease-fire, while Sharon promised to end Israeli military operations in the territories if the Palestinian violence stops. The media around the world made a big deal out of this, saying this time there is a real chance for peace.

In reality it offers nothing of the kind. Since Israel has asked the European Union to declare Hamas a terrorist organization, in reality Abu Mazen will declare a cease-fire while Israel will continue its military actions in the 1967 occupied territories. Abbas, although elected, cannot speak for all the Palestinians or all the organizations that operate on Palestinian territory. In order for this deal to hold he must be in a position to offer the Palestinian people something concrete.

What does not bode well for the Palestinian people is that those taking part in the summit were all supporters of US imperialism: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan. The Egyptian protocol officers decided that Abdullah would arrive first, followed by Abbas and then Sharon.

The four main characters in this show held a press conference after their meeting at which each delivered a speech, but in order to avoid any public airing of disagreements, they did not take questions from reporters. The day before the summit the Israeli and Palestinian teams actually exchanged copies of Sharon’s and Abbas’ speeches and tried to blur their disagreements. This kind of game can make a good TV show but it doesn’t solve the real underlying problems.

Sharon spoke of the importance of not missing the opportunity that has been created, calling for “deeds, not words” in the war on terror and reiterated Israel’s commitment to the road map peace plan. Finally, he detailed Israel’s planned goodwill gestures to the Palestinians, such as the release of 900 prisoners.

Abbas reiterated his declaration from the 2003 Aqaba Summit about the need for the PA to have a monopoly on armed force within its territory. It didn’t work then, it won’t work now. How can Abbas impose this on the armed groups operating on Palestinian Territory?

He also expressed his hope that the current Israeli-Palestinian dialogue will lead to implementation of the road map, while warning that many thorny issues, such as the separation fence (the wall) and the settlements, remain to be addressed in the future. So these key issues remain as festering problems that will not satisfy the Palestinian people.

In Israel, police stepped up the alert level throughout the country on the morning of the summit, due to numerous intelligence warnings of possible attempts to disrupt the summit with an attack inside Israel. All this is useful in keeping tensions high among the ordinary people of Israel.

Bush added his little bit when he promised money for the PA last week. As it turns out he didn’t offer very much. The White House asked Congress to release $40 million immediately. Of this, $8 million will be earmarked for assistance to the private sector, $3 million for health care and $13 million for improving the PA’s water infrastructure; the remainder will be devoted to higher education, community services and job creation.

The White House is also requesting $200 million to renovate houses in Gaza, rehabilitate the Palestinian economy, facilitate cargo transfers between Israel and the PA and improve healthcare and welfare. Bush also plans to ask Congress for $150 million for the PA in 2006. Whether the money will actually be released is another matter, but for now it looks good.

All this amounts to peanuts compared to the real needs of the Palestinians, and it shows more than anything else that he is not really serious about solving the burning problems of the Palestinian people. Bush needs to show that he is making progress in the Middle East. After the “successful” elections in Iraq – which were nothing of the kind – he now wants to show that he is also “sorting out” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is another gimmick aimed at showing the world that this time they are serious about peace.

Rice announced during her visit here that the US has appointed Lieutenant General William Ward to serve as a security coordinator, responsible for reshaping the PA security services. This means they want to create a Palestinian force to police the Palestinians. They tried this in the past and it failed.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad gave his blessing to the summit in the form of a letter to Mubarak praising Egypt’s efforts to promote peace, the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram reported. Over the weekend, the Egyptian press reported that the resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations would be discussed at the summit.

Israel is not giving Abu Mazen any cards to play

The Palestinian masses are expecting to get something real out of this summit. The main issue on which the Palestinians are expecting immediate results is the release of their prisoners. However, according to Mohammad Dahlan, the PA’s “achievement” has been Israeli readiness to establish a joint committee to discuss changing the criteria by which Israel releases prisoners. So again, nothing concrete, just promises to talk again in the future.

Last week, Israeli leaders did approve the release of 900 prisoners, none involved in violence, most of them arrested on charges like entering Israel to find jobs without licenses. But Israel holds more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them arrested during the last four years on charges of violence. Over decades of conflict, tens of thousands of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli custody, many without any official charges. The main Palestinian demand is freedom for 237 such prisoners in jail since before the Oslo agreement, most of them sentenced to life in jail. On this the Israeli government is less pliable. Already, on the day before the summit there were demonstrations in a number of places in the West Bank and Gaza organised by prisoners’ families.

According to Danny Rubinstein of the Haaretz newspaper, a Palestinian in an interview yesterday on a Gulf state news show said, “If Abu Mazen and the committee agree on 900 prisoners who will go free soon, and some are just Palestinians who were caught working illegally in Israel, we'll throw shoes at him.”

Palestinian spokesmen, just before the summit, tried to lower expectations in the summit, saying in official statements that the gathering in Sharm is the start of a process, not the end of one. But in some places in the territories, Palestinian journalists were reporting that the public was anticipating a real change, such as an end to the construction of the separation fence, removal of checkpoints, and the return of large numbers of Palestinians to work in Israel. This is extremely unlikely to happen, and therefore disillusionment will set in very quickly.

Thus it is clear that as a result of this summit Abu Mazen will be very welcome in Washington but not so much among the Palestinians who will see him in his true colours.

We have seen this film before, a similar scenario as the one after Oslo, except that this time the film is much shorter It is a repeat, therefore it won’t have the same impact as those in the past.