Asia Crisis

Arabs doubt Annapolis conference will bring peace

BEIRUT, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Arab commentators on Wednesday dismissed the relaunch of Israeli-Palestinian talks as a U.S.-staged media event unlikely to lead to Middle East peace.

Some argued that U.S. President George W. Bush's real aim in convening Tuesday's conference in Annapolis, Maryland, was to rescue his image after failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to persuade Arab states their deadliest foe was Iran, not Israel.

"The failure of Annapolis is now clear. (President Mahmoud) Abbas will return to Palestine without anything," said Essam el-Erian, a senior leader in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

"The conference was designed for public relations and the participants were obliged to participate," he contended.

Lebanon's former telecommunications minister Essam Noman, writing in the opposition al-Akhbar newspaper, said the United States had succeeded in "dragging the Arabs to a diplomatic talkfest".

Washington's message, he said, was "I am the policeman (an Arabic word-play on Annapolis) of the Middle East, responsible for your safety and stability. Beware deviousness and troublemaking, Israel isn't the enemy, Iran is".

Ghassan Charbel, editor of the London-based Al-Hayat daily, said Arab states had gone to Annapolis without illusions.

"They know that Israel wants to negotiate without being ready to pay the price of the solution. And they are aware that the Israeli negotiator will ask the Palestinian Authority for (conditions) it cannot provide," he wrote in an editorial.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed at the 44-nation conference to try to forge a peace treaty by the end of 2008 to create a Palestinian state.

Arabs questioned whether Bush would push Israel hard enough to stop occupying and building settlements on Palestinian lands.

"The Palestinians ... want realistic moves on the ground, and that is where the U.S. faces the challenge if it is genuinely interested in salvaging its lost credibility," said the English-language Gulf Today paper in the United Arab Emirates.


Mohamed al-Sayed Said, deputy director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, queried Bush's understanding of the Middle East and his commitment to peace.

"He is totally biased toward Israel and in his speech explained the maladies of the region only by reference to what he considered fanatics or extremists," Said said.

The Saudi daily al-Watan urged Washington to exert pressure on its Israeli ally, instead of "pressuring the party that has offered a solution", referring to a Saudi-inspired Arab plan for peace and full ties with Israel if it returns to 1967 borders.

Olmert's call for Arab states to forge ties with Israel now, rather than at the end of negotiations, drew negative responses.

"If normalisation between the two parties is placed before an agreement on the solutions, this is a sign that failure is coming," said an editorial in the Saudi newspaper al-Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister attended the Annapolis talks, but kept his promise to avoid handshakes with Israelis.

The presence of Saudi Arabia and Syria, neither of which have relations with Israel, was a boost for Bush's most serious Middle East peace drive since he took office in 2001.

Arab participation drew scorn from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose non-Arab country is allied with Syria.

"Today, we witness how people lost their reputation and governments sacrificed their reputation, but this meeting didn't have the smallest achievement for those who held it," he said.

For Iran's Kayhan International paper, Arab participants were simply "window-dressing in a U.S. theatre".

Syria was able to air its demand to regain the occupied Golan Heights, but few Syrians were optimistic about Annapolis.

Haitham Maleh, a Syrian human rights lawyer, said there was no reason to believe it would produce results where the 1991 Madrid conference or the 1993 Oslo accords had failed.

"What happened? Israel continued expanding settlements, taking land and building the illegal wall," he declared. "Bush wants to make some favourable media coverage for himself because he lost in Iraq, Afghanistan, all over the world."

Egyptian commentator Mohammed Wahby said Abbas and Olmert also had their eyes on a historical legacy. "Because they are weak they might have the chance to achieve something that other Palestinian and Israeli leaders would not do," he added. (Additional reporting by Middle East bureaux)