Senior Correspondent

WASHINGTON ( – Standing in the White House Rose Garden with the president of the Palestinian Authority and the prime minister of Israel by his side, President George W. Bush pronounced himself pleased with the outcome of three days of U.S.-sponsored diplomacy centered around an international Middle East peace conference at the U.S. Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis, Md., earlier in the week.

“No matter how important yesterday was, it’s not nearly as important as tomorrow and the days beyond,” said Mr. Bush, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on one side and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the other Nov. 28. “I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t believe that peace was possible,” the president said.

The conference drew 44 nations, including neighboring Arab states whose support is considered vital to any peace agreement. After weeks of wrangling over the text, Mr. Bush secured the agreement of the two leaders to a “joint understanding” on future negotiations just minutes before the opening of the conference.


That understanding aims to reach a peace settlement by the end of 2008, it spells out the details of how to go about trying to reach that deal, but offers very little in the way of addressing the issues which have kept the two sides at war since the birth of the Jewish state. Israel sits on territory confiscated from Palestinians living under a British mandate in 1947. In the 60 years since its birth, Israel has tightened what some have called an apartheid-like grip on the millions of Palestinians living under its military occupation.

The un-addressed issues in the just concluded “understanding” include the status of Jerusalem, the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes, the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements, and the continuing construction of a so-called Israeli “security wall” which chops up Arab land in the West Bank into unconnected enclaves. Critics say the result resembles Bantustans, where Black South Africans were confined during apartheid.

Despite outrage by Israel’s supporters in this country, there have been frequent comparisons of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to the White-minority apartheid regime in South Africa. Former President Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize winners, have made the apartheid comparison.

“Palestine: Peace not Apartheid,” is the title of Mr. Carter’s most recent and most controversial book. The word “apartheid” is accurate, Mr. Carter said in an interview broadcast in September. “Within Palestinian territory, they are absolutely and totally separated, much worse than they were in South Africa, by the way. And the other thing is, the other definition of ‘apartheid’ is, one side dominates the other. And the Israelis completely dominate the life of the Palestinian people.”

Archbishop Tutu is well acquainted with apartheid and with biblical scripture. In a recent address at Boston’s Old South Church, he linked South African apartheid, which was overturned and discredited by history, to the lives of the Palestinian people.

“I could have spent a great deal of time rehearsing what we all know, how I experienced a deja-vu when I saw a security checkpoint which Palestinians had to negotiate most of their lives, that I was reminded so painfully of the same checkpoints in apartheid South Africa. When arrogant White policemen treated almost all Blacks like dirt, or when someone pointed to a house in Jerusalem and said, ‘That used to be our home, but now it has been taken over by the Israelis,’ which would make me recall so painfully similar statements in Cape Town by Coloreds who had been thrown out of their homes and relocated in ghetto townships some distance from the town center,” said Bishop Tutu.

“The joint statement that the three (leaders) issued (at the Annapolis conference), simply ignored all those (unaddressed) issues and talked only about process. ‘We will meet every two weeks. We will work very hard.’ It was sort of the kindergarten style commitment,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she focuses on U.S. Middle East policy, in an interview.

“My careful, political analyst side is a little bit hesitant to put too much weight in this joint understanding. It’s (only) one page long. It’s the kind of declaration of principles that launched Madrid, that launched Oslo, that doesn’t tell you anything. It’s all the bureaucratic stuff,” Ms. Bennis said, referring to previous Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives dating back nearly 15 years which have not produced any progress. “In fact, I don’t think this agreement changes anything.”

“There were two real goals for this meeting; neither of them have really anything to do with Palestinian rights, a Palestinian state, Israeli security or anything else. They are, number one, to shore up Arab states’ support for the U.S. crusades against Iran and Iraq in the region, and, two, to rebuild (U.S. Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice’s legacy, which right now is grounded in her being the person who stood before the world in the summer of 2006, as Israeli bombs were devastating Lebanon, and said, ‘We don’t need a ceasefire yet.’ She wants to change that. That’s a huge part of why this meeting went forward,” said Ms. Bennis.

Secretary Rice will be the lead person in the Bush administration, which will not be putting forward any U.S. proposals on key issues. The U.S. sees itself as the facilitator of talks, though the U.S. has always favored the Israeli position. U.S. officials try to position America as an “honest broker” between the two contentious sides, which has not been proven true. Washington will lead an “informal mechanism” to monitor progress because Israel rejected proposals for a formal three-way committee, or for involvement of either Russia, the European Union, or the United Nations.

The U.S. has never been an even-handed “honest broker” in the Middle East. In addition to traditional concerns about U.S. closeness to Israel and current low U.S. prestige in the region, Mr. Bush decisively shifted U.S. policy even more in Israel’s favor in 2004 when he conceded illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land could not be changed in any future negotiations.

“Basically, the Palestinian delegation, being very weak and with great doubts about how representative it is, made one concession after the other,” Mustafa Barghouti an independent Palestinian lawmaker told Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

“And everything they promised the Palestinian people, they failed to achieve. They didn’t mention the issue of Jerusalem; the issue of borders; the freeze of settlements, which we’ve been asking for. And basically the whole document and the whole outcome of the meeting has practically met every Israeli need or demand,” said the former information minister of the Palestinian Authority and former Palestinian presidential candidate.

“The Palestinians have accepted to have a state in less than half of what was assigned to them back in the United Nations resolutions in ’47. And now what are they getting? The Road Map. You know, there comes a point where you cannot further compromise the compromise. And what happened in Annapolis was basically, in my opinion, a big blow to the possibility of peace based on a two-state solution. And this might be the last opportunity. So, in my opinion, the Road Map is about putting Palestinians in front of an impossible mission and then using that as an excuse for Israel to impose its unilateral solution, which is nothing but an apartheid system.”

Ms. Bennis agrees, pointing out that most people in this country are confused by what she describes as the “Myth of the Middle East.”

“One of the myths is that this is a quote, ‘conflict’, with two equal sides, who both are recalcitrant, who both are violating their obligations. They’re both children on the playground playing with scissors. The notion that these are not two equal, and equally obligated sides–that there is an occupied and an occupier, is missing. That’s the danger,” said Ms. Bennis.

Israel is and always has been the dominant military power in the region, with the complete support of the U.S. Israel has a bigger nuclear arsenal than France, and a larger military than most European countries, not to mention the much smaller and weaker Arab governments in the region.

In addition to isolating Hamas, the militant Islamic party which won control of the Palestinian parliament in elections nullified by Mr. Abbas, moderate Arab governments–like Egypt and Saudi Arabia–which have supported unpopular U.S. policies all along, are as anxious for this Annapolis process to succeed as is the U.S., according to Ms. Bennis. Those governments “would love to sign on to (the American) Crusades. The problem they face is their people don’t like it. They need something to give their populations to convince them that it’s not really so bad to be consistently in bed with the United States. They need something to throw to their people. They need a bone. The bone is the Annapolis talks.”

The moderate leaders “can now go back to their people and say, ‘Look. The U.S. is doing the right thing. The U.S. is encouraging a Palestinian state. The U.S. is now on the side of the Palestinians, trying to get a two-state solution, pushing hard for it. So, we’re on the side of justice here. We’re on the side of the Palestinians, so it makes sense that we should also support U.S. policy in X, Y, and Z…in Iraq and Iran,’ ” Ms. Bennis concluded.