Sohail Hashmi on Annapolis Peace Conference

Questioning Authority asked Sohail Hashmi, Associate Professor of International Relations on the Alumnae Foundation, for his thoughts on the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace conference. Hashmi specializes in religion and politics; ethics and international relations, particularly the comparative ethics of war and peace; and Middle East politics.

QA: Why do you think George Bush decided now to convene this peace conference? Is he just trying to improve his disastrous record as president? Is he trying to fortify Arab opposition to Iran? Or does he have more altruistic aims?

SH: Bush, like all second-term presidents, is looking toward his historical legacy. The "holy grail" of American foreign policy since the early 1970s has been lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. No doubt, a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will tremendously weaken America's chief adversaries in the region, Syria and Iran, so there are also important political reasons for this newfound interest in Middle East negotiations on the part of the Bush administration.

But no Middle East summit has ever been held with all the principals involved so politically weak. Bush is a lame-duck president and one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. Olmert's popularity in Israel sank to all-time lows following the summer 2006 war with Hizballah, and his position remains weak. Abbas has lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas and is facing challenges from Hamas loyalists in the West Bank. He is hardly in a position to make serious concessions to Israel. In many ways, all three men are in a last-ditch effort to save themselves from political oblivion.

QA: How optimistic are you that Israel and Palestine will be able to come up with a workable plan by the end of Bush's presidency?

SH: Most of the world is skeptical, and I share that skepticism. The Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993, and here we are 14 years later with the "final status" issues still unresolved. In fact, the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the suicide bombings in Israel, the Israeli security barrier, and the deep divisions within the Palestinian Authority have taken us back to a time before the Oslo Accords were signed. A sustained involvement in the negotiations by the U.S. is absolutely vital. Perhaps Bush and Rice will devote the time necessary in their last year in office, but election years have a way of diverting American leaders' attention to domestic concerns. And we should not forget that the U.S. has other serious foreign policy preoccupations at the moment: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, to name just a few.

QA: Is the two-state solution feasible?

SH: The two-state solution will result in a very small and truncated Palestinian state, but it seems to be the only solution. I have been told many times by Israelis that the one-state option is not an option for them because it will mean the effective end of the Jewish state. Adding nearly four million Palestinians, possibly more if large numbers of refugees are allowed to return, will mean "national suicide" for six million Israeli Jews.

Yet both Israelis and Palestinians realize that the two-state solution will mean close interaction and cooperation if the two states are going to coexist peacefully. The land is too small and the economies are too interdependent for anything but close cooperation. Creative new interpretations of sovereignty will be required for the two-state solution to work. Otherwise, we will soon return to the present state of actual or potential conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

QA: What are the biggest points of contention between the parties?

SH: Borders, especially after the Israeli security barrier established new boundaries in the West Bank. The Palestinians and others call this fence/wall a "land grab" by Israel. The Israeli government cites the fact that suicide bombings in Israel have declined dramatically since the barrier was put up in 2005-2006.

Related to the issue of borders are the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Those settlements along the Jordan River will probably be sacrificed by Israel. But the bulk of the settlements ring East Jerusalem. These are actually fully developed cities, and it's very hard to imagine that Israel will be willing to leave these. Hebron in the southern West Bank is a flashpoint between Palestinians and Jewish settlers because of the religious sanctity of the Tomb of the Patriarchs for Jews and Muslims. The Hebron settlers in particular are determined to stay, and they have support among the religious parties in the Knesset.

The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital. Israel incorporated East Jerusalem into the greater Jerusalem municipality in 1967 and formally annexed it in 1980. Its Arab population (210,000) is integrated economically into the municipality of Jerusalem. But these Arab residents have not been granted Israeli citizenship. So they exist in a gray legal area. Some recent surveys indicate that many of these East Jerusalem Palestinians would opt for Israeli rather than Palestinian citizenship for economic reasons, and this enormously complicates the Palestinians' claim to Jerusalem as their capital.

Related Links:

Sohail Hashmi - Faculty Profile

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