Palestine: The Annapolis charade0

On November 27, as Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met, with the backing of US President George Bush in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss a possible peace treaty, Israeli troops invaded a number of West Bank cities and attacked the Gaza Strip, killing at least four people. Abbas's US-trained Palestinian Security Forces attacked thousands of unarmed demonstrations against the conference in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Tulkarem and Hebron.

The rallies were staged in defiance of a ban on rallies by the PA. Hundreds of protesters and media crews were attacked and detained. Thirty-seven-old Hisham Barad'i died after PA forces fired on protesters in Hebron. At least 30 other people were also injured. The following day, PA security forces opened fire on mourners at Barad'i's funeral.

An anti-Annapolis rally also took place in Gaza, with thousands of Palestinians participating. For the first time in many months, a united front was established between a number of factions, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Rally speakers condemned Abbas for selling out the Palestinian people.

Protesters in both Gaza and the West Bank demanded that the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, in particular the right of return for Palestinian refugees, not be negotiated away by Abbas. This was in response to reports that Bush would call for Israel to be a homeland for Jews, thus negating the rights of Palestinians to return to their ancestral homes. In his speech to the Annapolis conference, Bush stated that a negotiated settlement "will establish Palestine as a Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people".

The conference, which lasted just one day, resulted in a 437 word statement being issued by Olmert and Abbas. While it contained lots of lofty sentiment such as wanting "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", it offered little in the way of substance. The only concrete proposals were that the two sides "agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty" based on previous agreements (such as the Road Map to Peace and Oslo) and that Abbas and Olmert would continue to meet on a bi-weekly basis.

In his speech, Olmert stated that Israel was "prepared to make a painful compromise, rife with risks" in order to realise peace and that while negotiations would not take place at Annapolis, Israel was committed to "bilateral, direct, ongoing, and continuous [talks], in an effort to complete the process in the course of 2008". The hollowness of his words, however, were exposed by Israeli newspaper Maariv on November 28. It reported that Olmert saw the joint declaration as a "success" because he was able to avoid any significant Israeli concessions.

According to Maariv, Olmert had said that "The Palestinians began negotiations with us requesting serious Israeli concessions as well as demanding, during Annapolis, vows that Israel will sign a final agreement with them within a span of six months. However, the declaration which was finally reached almost did not include any Israeli concessions." The paper also reported that, according to high-ranking Israeli political officials, Olmert does not intend to consent to a final status agreement by the 2008 deadline.