The Day After Annapolis

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The Day After Annapolis

Aref Assaf

Little talk if any about the Annapolis peace conference is taking place among the normally over politicized Arab community. For over six years, we have rightfully blamed the Bush administration for its inactions toward resolving the Palestine/Israel conflict.

While there is ample justification for skepticism, this is not the time for fatalism about the prospect for a durable Middle East peace. It is time to stand by those who make serious attempts at overcoming the obstacles which have eluded many in the past. I have written about the dim prospects of the conference and I do have my own doubts. But I must be ready to give peace another chance, for it is the prize we all seek.

I am hopeful because I am witnessing a rather sustained and proactive effort on the part of the American government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been busily shuttling between many capitals. Who knows? This gathering may succeed. And if it does, the entire bloody history of the Middle East stands to be revised, if not altogether rewritten.

The American Arab Forum, along with several Arab and Jewish organizations, have endorsed the Ackerman-Boustany letter to Secretary Rice in support of the Annapolis peace conference commending her efforts to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by convening an international conference this fall and calling for additional steps to ensure its success. The letter (view full text of the letter) calls for “robust, hands-on U.S. leadership and diplomacy” and states that “resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through the establishment of two states for two peoples, is too important not to seize the opportunities that have emerged over the past weeks.” We fully support the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian governments as they launch the Annapolis meeting in an attempt to revive serious Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations toward a viable two-state solution. The letter was cosigned by 135 Congressman, including all Arab American and twelve Jewish representatives. click here for list).

We take note of the fact that the letter was co-sponsored by an Arab and a Jewish Congressmen, a first in the often polarized history of the Arab and Jewish communities in the United States. Arab and Jewish Americans have a historic responsibility to send out a very unambiguous message that transcends tactical differences in how we view the conflict. It borders on insanity that our combined political leverage and voting currency are not being used to proactively impact the foreign policy of the United States. For too long, Arab and Jewish Americans have acted as instigators rather than agents of reconciliation. We seem so intent in scoring moral victories while our warring brothers in Palestine/Israel continue to kill and maim each other. American leaders will be judging just how much support they have from their constituencies, especially American Arabs and Jews, for continuing down this difficult path.

Our continued unabashedly tribal motivations contradict the wishes of most average Arab and Jewish Americans. Importantly, they do not serve the short or long-term interests of the United States, let alone the people of the Middle East. We hope Annapolis will act as a catalyst for a more vibrant and proactive role by the different Arab and Jewish organizations. The cause of peace and justice are the noblest of all human endeavors.

For Annapolis to be a success, it must deal with the ‘day after’ syndrome. The conference must be followed by a vigorously genuine U.S. diplomatic engagement more intense and more involved than anything that has preceded it in the last seven years.since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks began in the early 1990s, U.S. policy has been based on the assumption that both sides need to work out a solution for themselves and both sides need to accept territorial compromise. As reasonable as that may seem on the surface, it ignores the fact that, even if one assumes that both Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights to peace, freedom, and security, there is a grossly unequal balance of power between the occupied Palestinians and the occupying Israelis. It also avoids acknowledging the fact that the Palestinians, through the Oslo agreement, have recognized the state of Israel on a full 78 percent of Palestine and what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is asking for is simply the remaining 22 percent of Palestine that was seized by Israel in the 1967 war and is recognized by the international community as being under belligerent occupation.

Importantly, tangible improvements on the ground are vital, if the Israeli and Palestinian people are to support diplomatic efforts, at Annapolis or after. There must be a dramatic increase in freedom of movement and access for Palestinians and a total freeze on settlement growth from the Israeli side; and stepped-up security, financial, and governmental reforms on the Palestinian side. The unbearable humanitarian situation of Palestinians living in Gaza must be addressed, and Israel must stop threatening invasion or the cutoff of electricity and other basic human needs.

The pro-peace grass-roots have no choice but to offer one simple message: Peace must prevail. We must not revert back to the previous years of diplomatic neglect. Peace and security for the Israelis will only come when the Palestinians rights, in their entirety are dealt with in a just and caring manner.

Because we care about America’s peace and that of the world, let us use this holiday season to pray for the success of the Annapolis Conference.

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Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, a think-tank based in Paterson.

For more detailed treatment of the issues discussed here, see International Crisis Group, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Annapolis and After (Amman/Brussels, November 2007)