The Middle East Peace Conference at Annapolis

The Middle East Peace Conference at Annapolis

On November 27, 2007, an international conference was convened at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, at the invitation of the United States. It was chaired by Secretary of State condoleezza rice and brought together Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and 49 states and international organizations.

The purpose of the conference was to begin a process of direct negotiations leading to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, based on the two state solution envisioned by President George Bush and partly detailed in the Quartet roadmap, which had been issued earlier. In his opening address to the conference President Bush noted:

We meet to lay the foundation for the establishment of a new nation—a democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security. We meet to help bring an end to the violence that has been the true enemy of the aspirations of both the Israelis and Palestinians.Israel was represented by its three most senior government figures—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzipi livni.

The trio reflected the seriousness of Israel’s participation in the new, U.S.-sponsored peace effort but also reflected the rivalry of the three individuals, both on the issues involved in the peace process as well as their personal ambitions for leadership of Israel. All three sought peace, but each had a different perspective on how to approach the process.

At the same time, various Israeli groups and factions were seriously concerned that Israel would be forced to make concessions considered too painful for the body politic—most important a compromise on the issue of dividing Jerusalem and relinquishing Jewish holy places there. There was also concern about how the borders might be altered and how much of the territory occupied in 1967 might remain in Israel’s control after the negotiation.

For some Israelis this was a security issue, for others it was psychological, for still others, and perhaps most significantly, it was a religious question—a matter of returning land promised by God to the children of Abraham. The Second lebanon War, its outcome, the ongoing Winograd commission investigation and its report, and the ongoing violence and terrorism hung over the discussions and concerns about the future.Nevertheless, Israel and the Palestinian Authority under Abbas agreed to begin immediate negotiations with the goal of reaching a peace treaty by the end of 2008.

The joint understanding between Olmert and Abbas read in part:We express our determination to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples; to usher in a new era of peace, based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition; to propagate a culture of peace and nonviolence; to confront terrorism and incitement, whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis.

In furtherance of the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security, we agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues, without exception, as specified in previous agreements. We agree to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations, and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.

There were some who believed that reaching an agreement before the end of 2008 might be possible. But no appreciable progress, no working groups to deal with the core issues of borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, water issues, and related matters, developed in the initial weeks. In the immediate aftermath of the Annapolis conference, the negotiations process moved ahead, albeit very slowly.

In January 2008, President George W. Bush traveled to the Middle East primarily to maintain the momentum and facilitate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process relaunched at Annapolis. This was his first visit to Israel since becoming president of the United States. He had visited earlier and had grown to appreciate the issues and concerns of Israel, particularly those of security, guided by the deft hand of Ariel Sharon.

Bush met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of ramallah and expressed confidence that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be reached by the end of 2008. At the end of the Holy land portion of his Middle East trip, President Bush, at a press conference in Jerusalem, said:

I share with these two leaders the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. Both of these leaders believe that the outcome is in the interest of their peoples and are determined to arrive at a negotiated solution to achieve it. The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967.

The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.

Reaction in Israel

The reactions in Israel showed a wide division about the wisdom of the process, the content of the negotiations, and the positions taken on the various issues. Shas and others from the religious factions were most concerned about discussions concerning the status of Jerusalem. On the right, verbal concerns led to specific actions.

On January 16, 2008, Minister of Strategic Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor lieberman resigned from the cabinet and the Yisrael Beiteinu Party withdrew from the Kadima-led coalition government, focusing specifically on the negotiating strategy with the Palestinians adopted by the Olmert government.

lieberman had threatened to leave the coalition once Israel’s talks with the Palestinians touched on the core issues of the conflict, especially the status of Jerusalem, but also including borders and refugees. lieberman said that he did not expect the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to lead anywhere. At a press conference, he noted that his purpose in government was “to stop the Annapolis process.” This departure narrowed the government coalition by 11 members, reducing its control to 67 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.

Rockets from Gaza

As the post-Annapolis peace talks continued in an effort to reach a solution to the issues in dispute, violence and terror emanating from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip continued to escalate. New groups espousing Islamic causes, some associated with al-Qaeda, emerged with militant anti-Israel agendas seeking to harm Israelis and to prevent movement toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Their common feature was to liberate all of the territory of Palestine (i.e., all of Israel) and secure the holy places in Jerusalem through armed struggle.In the months following the Annapolis summit there were periodic escalations of rocket fire and some mortar shells from the Gaza Strip toward the town of Sderot, although some also reached Ashkelon.

In Israel there were growing calls for government action in response to the rocket fire. Demonstrations in Sderot and Jerusalem, calls in the Knesset for action, and growing public outrage continued to focus on the government’s inability to stop the attacks. Some suggested an escalation of Israel’s responses to include more air strikes and/or a ground offensive. One minister recommended that Israel select a neighborhood in Gaza, warn the residents to leave, and then “erase it” each time rockets were fired into Israel.

The Siege of Gaza In mid-January 2008, Defense Minister Ehud Barak halted all imports into the Gaza Strip, including food and fuel, and stepped up Israeli military operations and actions as a way to convince Hamas to discontinue its attacks. This had limited success. Under intense international pressure, Israel eased the blockade on January 22, 2008, despite the continuing attacks. The growing boycott and restrictions on travel in and out of Gaza for both people and goods produced a seriously deteriorating situation in the area but did not generate any movement toward negotiation for peace by Hamas with Israel.

Finally, Hamas forces toppled a portion of the fence between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, near the town of rafah, which permitted tens of thousands of Palestinians to travel to Egypt where they bought goods and services and from where they also smuggled weapons and weapon-making material back into the Gaza Strip to be used for attacks on Israel.After the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, a series of security measures had been put in place that sought to assure that the border crossings to and from Gaza would be appropriate and peaceful.

After the Hamas takeover of Gaza, it became clear that these crossings were increasingly used for contraband—routes for terrorists on their way to attacks in Israel and for guns, funds, explosives, and rocket-making material for strikes on Israel. With the growing threats, Israel increased the security measures at the crossings between Gaza and Israel. This was partly successful in reducing the threats, but it also created a growing siege of the Gaza Strip leading to a deteriorated economic situation.

After the fence was breached on January 23, 2008, the border remained open for 11 days, until Egypt closed it. This allowed Hamas to claim political prowess by breaking the siege and by demonstrating that it (Hamas), by force, could alleviate the suffering of the people of Gaza. And it allowed Hamas to refurbish both its financial coffers and its military arsenal from Egypt through the breach in the fence.

In early February 2008 Israel decided to again tighten the siege on the Gaza Strip in an effort to convince the Palestinians to end their attacks, without Israel using force. Israel reduced the amount of electricity it sold to Gaza, but noted that it would continue to provide the minimum to prevent harm to the health or safety of the residents, as well as the amount of gasoline and diesel fuel.

On February 4, 2008, an Israeli civilian was killed and 11 others wounded when a suicide bombing took place in the city of Dimona. One bomber detonated his weapon; the second bomber was killed before he could detonate his bomb. Several Palestinian groups claimed responsibility for this attack, which was the first of this type in Israel for more than a year, but the claim by the Qassem Brigades, a wing of Hamas, seemed to be the most credible.

The attack was glorified and further such efforts were threatened by Hamas spokesmen in Tehran, Iran, and in Gaza. Gazans expressed their joy at the attack—children handed out candy and flowers in the streets to celebrate the event. The attack marked an end to a self-imposed moratorium by Hamas on such attacks over the previous months.