By Zhang Yanyang, Xu Gang
Though it is unrealistic to reach Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by the end of U.S. President George W. Bush's term, political analysts here do not regard it as a setback.
The comment came after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders during her on- going Mideast trip, has conceded this week that the Annapolis goal are unlikely to be met by the year's end, while denying that the peace push was a failure.
Under the U.S. pressure, Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed last November at an U.S.-hosted international conference in Maryland's Annapolis to relaunch the stalled peace talks aimed to hammer out a comprehensive peace treaty before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January.
However, since Annapolis, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have made little substantial progress due to deep rifts on sensitive issues. With time running out, it is highly unlikely to reach Annapolis' target.
It is too early to say that these negotiations are going to fail, said Professor Gerald Steinberg, political studies department chair at Bar Ilan University.
He told Xinhua that Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas all want to close their careers with something successful.
"We have three leaders that desperately want a paper agreement in order to claim that they have accomplished something. What we may well see is a pseudo agreement with a lot of ceremonial agreement aspects," he said.
"In reality, it would be a broadly worded memorandum of understanding that would talk in general terms about Palestinian refugees and mention borders, but it can't be implemented because of Hamas' unwillingness to negotiate and the weakness of Palestinian National Authority (PNA)," he added.
"They are finally running into reality. You can't set for this longtime conflict to be over in six months or a year," Palestinian Affairs analyst Khaled Abu Toameh told Xinhua, saying that "they should revise their policy and rethink their strategies at Annapolis which did not lead to any conclusive agreement."
Abu Toameh noted that the change in the U.S. administration would not necessarily entail a slowdown in the peace process.
It all depends on how much Americans want to get involved under the new Barack Obama administration, he said, adding if it decides to put the Middle East at the top of its priorities, "negotiations might be picked up where they ended."
"The two sides are very close to an agreement," said the Palestinian Affairs analyst, noting that they were just dealing with technicalities. "They have agreed on most of the big issues concerning land swaps in Jerusalem and most of the West Bank."
Some other analysts, however, noted that the new U.S. administration would have to get settled domestically before focusing on foreign policy.
It is very important to understand when to deal with the U.S. government that it will take until April to get organized, said Professor Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
Rubin told Xinhua that "in the State Department alone, there are something like 150 appointed positions, of which at least 50 or 60 will have to be approved by Congress and get security clearances. We are literally talking about thousands of people."
"There is the popular accusation that the Bush administration wasn't active enough in pushing forward the (Mideast) peace process so they want to show they are active but it will take them until April or May until they can focus on that," he held.
Steinberg, however, noted that the Obama administration would probably seek to get involved as early as possible.
"There will be people who will be telling Obama that they need to avoid having a crisis impose itself, and that they would therefore have to deal with the Middle East from the beginning," Steinberg told Xinhua, noting that they would probably seek to avoid the mistakes the Bush administration was faulted for.
"With the Bush administration they didn't have a Middle East framework until halfway through the Iraq war," he said. "If (Obama ' s) advisors are former peace negotiators from the Clinton administration, they are likely to push for immediate attention on the issue."
Bar Ilan University's professor Steinberg held, however, that it would be a major mistake because it is a no-win situation.
"Peace has to be nurtured from the bottom up," he said, stressing that a rushed agreement would only lead to more violence.
The Oslo agreement's declaration of principles turned out not just to be unworkable but created expectations that were not met and ended up creating the foundations for greater violence, said Steinberg.
"I certainly fear we might have the same situation now: a rushed agreement that can't be implemented and will result in greater violence."
Abu Toameh noted that the majority of the Palestinian population had not been prepared to compromise on a two-state solution.
A recent public opinion poll showed that most Palestinians are willing to accept a two-state solution but only because they can't take everything now, and they aren't giving up on the rest of Palestine, according to him, noting that the majority of Palestinians still were not willing to recognize Israel.
"On the Arab side we have raised a generation or two on delegitimizing Israel, not accepting the right for a Jewish state to exist in the Middle East, and on glorification of suicide bombers," he said, noting that this negative education made peace unattainable.
All analysts considered that the division between Fatah and Hamas would ultimately interfere with any efforts towards a peace agreement.
"As long as there are divisions among the Palestinians and as long as there are two different authorities, one in Gaza and one in the West Bank, negotiations are futile," Abu Toameh said, noting that the division between Hamas and Fatah is mainly over tactics and strategy.
Hamas is a bit more pragmatic in recent days as it is prepared to go towards a two-state solution, but it is doing so without giving up its claim for a greater Palestine, and its denial of Israel's right to exist, he said.
"There is no partner on the Palestinian side. Abbas is not a partner because he has no power or control and Hamas is not a partner because it doesn't want to compromise," Abu Toameh said, noting that Abbas lost control over half of the Palestinian population and was well on his way to losing his credibility in the West Bank as well.
The next Israeli government would also likely be less willing to compromise in peace negotiations, said the analysts, adding as the disengagement from Gaza saw the rise of Hamas and an increase in daily attacks on nearby Israeli cities, Israeli public opinion has gradually become more right-wing and many have lost their belief in a land for peace strategy.
Hawkish Likud Leader Binyamin Netanyahu, the main contender to the premiership, has already made it clear that he would not support concessions made under Olmert's government.
Netanyahu has already said he will not be bound by an agreement, and he also said it is not acceptable to have an interim prime minister and interim government reach historic agreements, according to Steinberg.
Still, analysts believed that negotiations would continue regardless of the change in government and who was in power.
Rubin noted that there were very good reasons for both sides to negotiate even when the chance of negotiations leading to an agreement was limited.
"First of all, Israel wants to show the world it wants peace and is willing to negotiate, and will do so to gain support from Europe and the U.S.," he said, noting that the two sides have common interests as they both want peace and want to prevent Hamas from taking over.
"It is in Israel's interest to keep Palestinian violence under control and Israel wants to train PNA forces to make them more capable of controlling the situation," said Rubin.
On the PNA side, they want to keep the aid falling, Rubin said, noting that Abbas also required international support in order to avoid elections to extend his term for another year.
While analysts believed that peace negotiations would continue regardless of upcoming changes in leadership, they warned that there should be no expectations of a conclusive agreement.
"This has to be build up slowly and they are looking for a quick fix, which would ultimately lead to more violence," Steinberg said. "They need to be far more modest and not look for a grand solution."