Annapolis Talks Prompt Much Doubt, a Few Jokes, in Mideast

SOURCE: | The Washington Post - October 01, 2007
By Scott Wilson and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 29, 2007

JERUSALEM, Nov. 28 -- A day after their leaders announced a new push for peace, Israelis and Palestinians returned Wednesday to a familiar and deadly routine, deeply skeptical over the timetable set for the talks and whether an end to the conflict is achievable at all in the current political climate.

In cafes and blogs in the Arab world, the Annapolis conference prompted little more than wisecracks. Commentators made much of a linguistic coincidence: In Arabic, "ana polis" means "I am the police."

President Bush's message, former Lebanese cabinet minister Essam Norman wrote in that country's opposition Al-Akhbar newspaper, was: "I am the policeman of the Middle East, responsible for your safety and security. Beware devious troublemaking. Israel isn't the enemy, Iran is."

The United States had succeeded only in "dragging the Arabs to a diplomatic talkfest," Norman wrote.

While newspapers in Israel and the Palestinian territories carried extensive coverage of the Annapolis conference -- some hopeful, much of it doubtful -- there were few indications on the ground that what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called a "historic" moment in the six-decade conflict had taken place.

The talks, officially inaugurated Wednesday in a White House meeting, represent the first formal Israeli-Palestinian peace process in nearly seven years. But the failed legacy of other peace efforts named for their venues -- Madrid, Oslo and Camp David -- and the still-unfulfilled promise of a U.S.-backed "road map" toward a Palestinian state made the pledge of peace by the end of next year seem like wishful thinking to some observers.

"The event in Annapolis was a nonevent," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah. "There was nothing there -- three speeches and that's it. For people here, the reaction is simple. We'll believe it when we see it."

Demonstrators crowded again in front of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's residence in Jerusalem. But unlike protesters of recent days, who were worried that Olmert might give up land in the West Bank to make way for a Palestinian state, the few who assembled there Wednesday morning were angry over low teachers' salaries.

The rain of rockets from the Gaza Strip intensified, as armed Palestinian groups opposed to talks with the Jewish state had promised the day before. Israeli military officials said at least 16 rockets and mortar shells were fired Wednesday into southern Israel, one of them damaging a building in a farming community in the western Negev desert.

The Israeli air force retaliated by firing on what officials described as a military post manned by gunmen from Hamas. The airstrike near the central Gaza city of Khan Younis killed two Hamas gunmen and wounded five others, Palestinian health officials said.

Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist and has labeled Abbas a "collaborator" with the Israeli occupation for attending the Annapolis meeting. The radical Islamic group, which favors armed attacks over negotiations to force Israel to concede land, release thousands of Palestinian prisoners and give rights to refugees, was not invited.

Even some officials in Olmert's cabinet questioned the feasibility of arranging peace in one year given the chaotic state of the Palestinian electorate.

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