Ausgabe 49/2007

Israelis and Palestinians Peace Talks Back from the Dead

Peace in the Middle East has been but a faint glimmer on the horizon since the 2000 Camp David talks failed. But now, both the Israelis and Palestinians say they are once again committed to reaching an agreement. But it might depend on their neighbors.

By , and

A Palestinian member of the Fatah Movement watches the Annapolis summit on television last week.

A Palestinian member of the Fatah Movement watches the Annapolis summit on television last week.

The command center of the Palestinian National Security forces in the West Bank town of Hebron is surrounded by concrete block barricades. Palestinian guards in olive-green uniforms hold their Kalashnikovs at the ready. Major General Thiab al-Ali, 63, the commander of more than 8,000 troops, sits inside chatting about the enemy.

On the wall behind him is a picture of Yasser Arafat, the now-deceased founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and former president of the Palestinian Territories. Ali spent 30 years leading the PLO in Lebanon in its struggle against Israel. But now he has changed his mind about the identity of the Palestinians' worst enemy: It is, he says, the Palestinians themselves. "We fought Israel in the past," says the general, "but today we are forced take up arms against our own people."

Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets last Tuesday in Hebron to protest the Middle East peace conference that was taking place on the same day in Annapolis, Maryland. Ali ordered his troops to the scene, but the demonstrators refused to disband. Shots were fired. A number of demonstrators were injured and one was killed.

'Our Own State'

Commander Ali, though, is concerned that this may be just the beginning of a long fight. His primary goal at the moment is to prevent Hamas extremists from violently taking over the West Bank, as they did in the Gaza Strip in June. "I would use every means available to keep this from happening," says Ali. He also admits that he does not understand why people object to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas negotiating with the Israelis. "Abbas knows what he is doing," says Ali. "He will get us our nation." Ali also thinks that Annapolis was a success: "Finally the whole world agrees that we should get our own state."

Such confidence was a rarity last week. Even before the conference began, commentators around the world had cynically declared the Middle East conference, which the Americans had organized in a small naval city 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Washington, little more than a photo opportunity. There was great resistance, especially among Arab countries, to attending a conference that promised to deliver a lot of show but little substance. Countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not accept the invitation to attend the conference until the last minute.

A malicious joke was making the rounds among critics of the Annapolis meeting in Israel in the weeks leading up the event: Why haven't the invitations gone out yet for Annapolis? Answer: Invitations are only sent out weeks in advance for weddings -- but invitations that are sent out the day before are for funerals. The punch line could have come from a Hamas leader.

But the critics were too quick to read Annapolis' epitaph. In fact, last week the Middle East peace process woke up from a seven-year coma, a torpor into which it had descended after the failure of the Camp David talks way back in 2000. The patient, as it turned out, was weak but still alive. The question now is whether it will be a full recovery.

The players in the Middle East.

The players in the Middle East.

Good Intentions Not Enough

The first signs of life are at least encouraging. The Israeli and Palestinian officials in Annapolis even managed, at the last minute, to come up with a joint statement. They vowed to launch bilateral negotiations immediately to address "all issues in dispute, without exception," the goal being an agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of next year. The reality that began in 1967 after the Six-Day War, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert predicted, will "change dramatically." Even the chronically sullen Palestinian President Abbas characterized the conference as a turning point that would mark the beginning of a "post-Annapolis era." These are big words, but good intentions alone will not be sufficient.

The peace process will not get back on its feet without the financial and political support of the international community. A Paris donor conference is planned for mid-December, at which the Europeans, in particular, are expected to commit to generous injections of financial support for the Palestinian economy. There has also been progress on the issue of security. The United States is paying to train police units for Abbas's Fatah Party to help them fight Hamas and other extremists. The Europeans are contributing to the training program, while Israel has agreed to allow weapons and armored vehicles to be brought into the West Bank.

It is a treatment with many possible side effects. Abbas stands to lose his support among the Palestinian people unless he can show some evidence of success soon. On the other side of the equation, Olmert, by making the necessary concessions, risks splitting his coalition government.

Still, never before has a Middle East peace process been supported by such a broad international front. Much, of course, depends on the will of the Americans to continue their commitment after Annapolis. But the importance of the summit goes well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting could mark a new chapter in Middle East realpolitik -- a return to diplomacy in the style of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas both say they want peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas both say they want peace.

Democratic Legitimacy?

The Arab autocrats, for instance, stand to gain in three ways. In the Middle East, they create the impression that they are interceding selflessly on behalf of the Palestinians. The United States offers them support against Iran, the new major power on the Gulf. Finally, the sheer difficulty of this phase in the peace process draws the world's attention away from questions -- recently gaining in intensity -- about their democratic legitimacy. Such reasoning clearly propelled Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to participate in the talks. All three Sunni states see themselves as "moderate," and the interests of all three have been converging with Israel's for some time.

Things are much more difficult for Syria. The country officially maintains close ties with Iran, but the government of President Bashar Assad is divided into two camps. Both are open to an easing of tensions with the West and are committed to regaining control of the Golan Heights through diplomacy. But while Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim would likely accept a break with Tehran in return, Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa is reluctant to give up the support of Iran's mullahs, which has proven valuable to Syria.


© DER SPIEGEL 49/2007
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