Annapolis will not set up a Palestinian state but will send signal to Iran

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (RIA Novosti commentator Nargiz Asadova) - This week, Annapolis, Maryland, is playing host to an international conference on Mid-Eastern settlement, which will formally start the talks on the final status of the Palestinian state.

Practically, none of the participants in the summit are expecting it to make any breakthroughs in the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it is acquiring a special meaning because of the growing confrontation between Iran and the United States. Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas described the Annapolis peace conference as a betrayal of Palestinian demands.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the Annapolis summit as "the most serious effort in many, many years to try to end the Mideastern conflict." "Frankly, it's time for the establishment of a Palestinian state," she added. The U.S. Administration has set itself the ambitious task of not only holding Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the presence of the Mideastern Quartet (the U.S., the EU, Russia, the UN) but also with the participation of all Arab nations, the majority of which do not recognize Israel.

The Bill Clinton Administration made a similar attempt in 2000, but it fell through because of the Saudi refusal to attend it. The Saudis are a key player in the region and this time the fear that they would not show up in Annapolis was so high that several days prior to the summit its status was downgraded from a conference to a meeting and the time allotted for the talks was reduced from three days to one.

Eventually, the Arab League decided in Cairo on November 23 that all its members, including the Saudis, would attend the summit, and it was again upgraded to a three-day conference.

Washington made another major achievement - Rice agreed to meet Syria's main condition and include the issue of Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on the agenda in order to secure its attendance. The U.S. Secretary of State was happy about her team's success and even promised that the United States would try to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict before the president's term expires in January 2009.

But the majority of experts both in the United States and outside it do not share her optimism. Israeli President Shimon Perez, a fervent supporter of the settlement, did not conceal his skepticism: "It is theoretically possible to reach an agreement during the term of President Bush but it is practically impossible." He said the Annapolis summit will not produce results but will launch the talks.

Although Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said that he would rather retire than attend a fruitless conference, the Israelis and the Palestinians failed to sign a joint declaration of intent before the Annapolis summit. Meanwhile, under the original plan, the summit was supposed to produce a joint document defining the borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the future of Israeli settlements and the rights of Palestinian refugees. But the Israelis dismissed this idea out of hand and declared that such sensitive issues cannot be rushed. In turn, they offered the Palestinians to recognize Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat replied that the Palestinians would not accept Israel as a "Jewish state" because no state links its national identity with its religion. The Palestinians are worried that this recognition would deny their refugees the right to return there.

Skeptics are also emphasizing that neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are strong leaders capable of fundamentally changing the situation. Israeli society is still unable to get over its unilateral troop and settlements withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the 2006 Lebanese campaign, and Olmert will never convince it to pull out Jewish settlements from the West Bank as well, or stop the construction of the wall to separate Israel from Palestinian territory.

Abbas hardly controls the West Bank and has no influence in the Gaza Strip - how can he possibly comply with the basic Israeli demand of destroying the terrorist infrastructure on Palestinian territory? How can a Palestinian state be set up at all if Hamas is still in control of part of its future territory?

Israeli-Syrian talks on the Golan Heights are not likely to produce results either. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Olmert and Perez not to be adamant and to resume peace talks on the Golan Heights. He said that Israel would find it much easier to score success on the Syrian rather than the Palestinian direction. But the Israeli Prime Minister's reply was a diplomatic "no." Before his departure for the United States, he said that although Israel has always been interested in Syria's attendance, it still prefers to concentrate on the Palestinian direction.

But there is no reason to think that the Annapolis summit will yield no results. First, it will formally launch the start of talks on the final status of the Palestinian state. Even more importantly, it will show that the United States, the European Union and Arab nations can work together in settling problems in the Middle East. The George W. Bush Administration is convinced that the United States has the right to expect Arab support by virtue of the new geopolitical situation.

Talking in U.S. Congress in October, Condoleezza Rice said that the world today is different from what it was like in 1973, 1983 or even 2000, and that the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict has moved to a broader plane of the conflict between the radicals and supporters of modernization in the Middle East.

Dr. Rice was talking about Iran. She pointed out that until recently Washington did not mention Iran's possible support for Hamas, although it has always known about Iran's backing of several marginal terrorist groups. But now the U.S. government can see the level of Iran's contacts with the more radical Palestinian elements, she summed up.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of its Middle East Democracy and Development Project believes that Iran's growing influence in the region concerns not only the United States but also motivates Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis, Palestinians and Israelis to unite with it in a coalition against this radical player.

The popularity of the Iranian and pro-Iranian leaders in the Arab street has become not only a regional but also a domestic problem for the governments in the Middle East. Public opinion polls conducted in six Arab countries after the Lebanese war in the summer of 2006 have shown that the first most popular policymaker was Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the runner-up. At the same time, people in the Arab countries are becoming increasingly discontent with their ruling elites and are blaming them for corruption, lack of commitment to liberal reforms and pro-Western policy.

Participation of all Arab countries, including pro-Iranian player Syria, in the Annapolis summit will become a symbolic landmark in U.S. geopolitical strategy. Cofman Wittes believes that resumption of the peace process will cement the anti-Iranian coalition.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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