The Annapolis Summit: Misunderstanding, Mistrust & Mispronunciation

Forty Delegations in a Room the Size of a Soccer Field: George Bush’s Cynical Effort to ‘Save the World in 48 Hours’

Struggling with his speech, George W. Bush reaches for his left suit pocket to take out his glasses, and puts them on slowly. With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to his right, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to his left, he waves his hands about uncoordinatedly. Slouching behind the grey podium adorned with the Annapolis Conference logo, glancing hastily over his spectacle frame, he declares: 

“The representatives of the government of the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, represented respectab… by…Ehud Olmu, and Mah Mahaubu Abbas… [have] concluded this following joint understanding…” 

Trying to camouflage his faux pas, which seemed to surprise him more than it did Olmert and Abbas, Pres. Bush peers at his notes without looking up; the audience, immersed in conversations with other delegations, doesn’t even notice.

To pull off what CNN labeled an effort to “save the world in 48 hours,” the United States called a Middle East Conference at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, on Nov. 27. It was, however, only the warm up of a peace process that was planned to continue in Russia in 2008. In the presence of more than 40 delegations gathered at a quadrangular table the size of half a soccer pitch, a consensus was reached to create a Palestinian state by the end of 2008.  Both parties restated their commitment to the Roadmap, introduced by the Quartet – the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union – on the Middle East in 2003, to be monitored by the United States.

Given the president’s obtuseness, it was something of a miracle that anything had been accomplished at all. MSNBC reporter Keith Olbermann accused Pres. Bush of having abused the conference as a photo- opportunity, delivering a speech that was “almost miraculously content-free,” according to the British news weekly The Economist.

Pres. Bush’s disengagement also worried Austria’s Foreign Minister, Ursula Plassnik. “All the elements are on the table, now, the President’s determination is required,” she explained in an interview with Die Presse in late November.

“We in the EU are also ready to make a contribution by helping the Palestinians, and also by participating in the peace process. But the strength for a comprehensive solution to the problems in the Middle East must above all come from the region.”

Still, the event may have helped prepare the ground for the day when America does have a president who is genuinely willing to spend political capital on Palestine.

Referred to as addressing the “lowest common denominator” by the British news weekly The Economist last December, the 437 word joint declaration committed Israel and Palestine to the goal of a two- state solution.  But it did not touch upon any crucial issues: There was no mention of Jerusalem, of refugees and their right of return, of borders, settlements, water, or security.

Before concluding the joint statement, however, Bush met with Olmert, and Abbas in the Oval Office for bilateral talks.

Leaning back in his blue and yellow striped armchair at his meeting with Olmert, broadcast live on CNN, Bush certainly seemed confused speaking without notes. Visibly irritated by the three foam-capped microphones that seemed to attack from either side, he began praising the optimism he ascribed to Olmert:

“I’m optimistic, I know you are optimistic, and I want to thank you for your courage and friendship. I’m proud your—of you!” Grinning constantly, Olmert voiced his hopes for the peace talks, and reinforced his commitment to the peace process.

About two hours later, Bush met with Abbas.  Next to Bush’s somehow artificial smile, the Palestinian’s manner blended seamlessly with the pre-Christmas scene in front of the fireplace. Restating the points he had made earlier in the closed-door meeting with Olmert, Bush was taken by surprise when Abbas started to answer in Arabic as Olmert had responded in English. Concluding without a handshake, both Presidents seemed satisfied.

With Bush weakened by public scepticism of his conduct of the Iraq war, with Olmert experiencing a leadership crisis, and Abbas having to deal with Hamas governing the Gaza Strip, all three leaders face a credibility crisis at home. So any success at the conference would have taken many people by surprise.

George W. Bush, who had, at that time, not visited Israel or anywhere else in the Middle East in more than 6 years, said he believed that “now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations.”

The West is looking back at a history of failed peace talks following the United Nations Partition Plan and the General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which after the termination of the British mandate of Palestine, aimed to partition the territory into a Jewish and an Arab state.

The most recent attempts include the Camp David summit of 2000, and the Roadmap negotiations of 2002/03.

Chaired by Bill Clinton, the Camp David summit attempted to reach a final status agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and PLO chairman Yassir Arafat. Despite the fact that the negotiations were more detailed than ever before, no mutual consent was reached as the two parties disaccorded over the issues of territory, the status of Jerusalem, refugees and their right of return, and security.

After Bush had voiced his goal of creating an independent Palestinian state, the road map plan was drawn up by the Quartet, consisting of the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union, in 2002/03. The plan consisted of three phases, expected to be achieved by the end of 2005. However, to date, not even the first steps, the end of Palestinian violence, and Israeli settlement activity, have been implemented.

There is very little to suggest that Annapolis will be more successful:

“It is too early to say if the conference was a success or not,” explained Middle East affairs analyst Jubin Goodarzi to The Vienna Review in December. “I don’t expect any breakthrough from the talks, but in terms of bringing together the two sides at one table, Annapolis was successful.”

The commitment of the Palestinians remains high, in spite of the frustrations. Pacing back and forth in front the lectern, H.E. Dr. Mohammad Abu-Koash, ambassador to the Palestinian Observer Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, urged an audience of students in December to think critically about the issues and stay engaged.

“We have the dream to live in peace with the Israelis,” he voiced with a Martin Luther King-like enthusiasm to an attentive audience, “but the Israelis follow a policy of humiliating the Palestinians, so I doubt they are genuinely interested in peace.”

However it is clear that living conditions in the Palestinian territories have been deteriorating.

“I did a degree in pedagogy and wanted to be a teacher,” 23-year-old Gazan Ahmed Kaohlut explained in an interview with Der Spiegel. Instead, he is unemployed and spends his days sleeping. He lives in a small house with 54 relatives, and the only furniture they have are mattresses and a little hot plate.

“Whenever it rains, the floor is covered with mud as part of the roof has been bombed away by missiles,” Kaohlut recounted. “We can only shower once a week, so we are really afraid of diseases. Electricity only works four to five hours a day, and food goes bad in the fridge because it does not cool constantly. We feel imprisoned.”

Some 85% of the people in Gaza, and 70% in the West Bank live in extreme poverty, explained Abu-Koash. “The Palestinians feel abandoned by the world in terms of actions. We hear a lot of sympathizing talk, but no actions that would really help our cause are taken.” Middle East affairs analyst Goodarzi still sees the U.S. as a powerful mediator in the current peace process, and countries like Austria, and Switzerland as facilitators of the peace process and a potential haven for Palestinian refugees. “However limited the prospects are for the negotiations in the Middle East, the U.S. wanted to ring them in with Pomp and Circumstance,” wrote the Austrian daily Die Presse following the conference. And the invitation of Foreign Minister Plassnik placed Austria at the level of key players. Plassnik herself was unavailable for comment in the wake of the conference, in spite of repeated requests.

At the Annapolis conference, however, Bush reassured the Palestinians that, at least in theory, the U.S. aims to help to achieve peace in the Middle East.

“I believe a day is coming when freedom will yield the peace we desire. And the land that is holy to so many will see the light of peace,” Bush concluded his speech, starting to shake his counterparts’ hands enthusiastically and light-heartedly, as if there had never been a conflict. All in all, the “photo-opportunity” had been very well staged.

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