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The Fern Sidman Commentaries:


As the world focused its attention on yet another round of Middle East peace negotiations, this time orchestrated by the Bush administration and held at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, it was clear that hope does not spring eternal for any kind of meaningful and long lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the imminent future.

Despite proclamations from President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas asserting a commitment to forge ahead with the US sponsored "roadmap to peace" in the region, there remains a multitude of stumbling blocks and endemic policy disagreements between the sides.

Just moments before President Bush delivered his speech to the Mideast peace conference on Tuesday, it appeared any hopes of getting a written agreement signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders had slipped away. An Israeli official had then announced that a "joint understanding" between Israel and the Palestinians had been reached, which essentially translated into an agreement to agree -- not an actual peace deal. Said US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice of the peace talks: "This work will be hard, it involves risks and sacrifices for all concerned. To be sure, the issues to be resolved by both parties are very challenging, but difficult to resolve does not mean impossible to resolve."

Over 40 countries were represented at the peace summit including most of the Arab world with the notable exceptions of Iran and Hamas, the latter being listed by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh denounced the summit in a televised address Tuesday. "The Palestinian people will not be bound by anything the Palestinian Authority agrees to in Annapolis," he said.

Desperate for recognition by the Arab states, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert called on the Arab nations in attendance to also make concessions, namely to end their boycott of Israel. "The time has come to end the boycott and alienation and the obliviousness toward the state of Israel," he said. An Israeli official, however said, "The Saudis won't shake our hands; the Syrians won't say nice things about us, but they're here."

President Bush called for an "end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict; to usher in a new era of peace, based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition; to propagate a culture of peace and nonviolence; and to confront terrorism and incitement." He hailed the peace summit as an "historic opportunity to encourage the expansion of freedom and peace in the Holy Land and called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel. He said his hopes for a negotiated settlement, "will establish Palestine as a Palestinian homeland just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people."

The recognition of Israel as a Jewish state appears to be one of the testier sticking points for the Palestinians. Arabs and Palestinians have opposed calling Israel a Jewish state because, they say, it would preclude many refugees from returning to Israel, and the label fails to account for thousands of Arabs residing there. The potential influx of Palestinian refugees from Jordan represents a demographic time bomb for Israel because as a democracy, this could mean that Palestinians, clearly in the majority can quietly and democratically vote Israel out of existence.

The issue of the status of Jerusalem also poses problems. After Bush's announcement, Abbas said that he will not back down on his demand that East Jerusalem be named the capital of any future Palestinian state, nor will he relent on his calls for Israel to dismantle its outposts in the West Bank.

"I must defend the right of our people to see a new dawn," Abbas said, calling also for the release of Palestinian prisoners, the lifting of roadblocks and the removal of what he called the "separation wall" that surrounds the West Bank.

Olmert said that Israel was "prepared to make a painful compromise, rife with risks, in order to realize these aspirations" of peace. He also said he had "hesitations and doubts" about attending Tuesday's summit, but Israel nonetheless "will be part of an international mechanism" to establish the guidelines and boundaries for a future Palestinian state.

The issue of dividing Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, has drawn harsh criticism from Olmert opponents in Israel as well as an array of Jewish organizations in the United States. According to a report from Israel National News, tens of thousands of people staged a mass demonstration Monday night in Jerusalem's Paris Square, across from the Prime Minister's residence, denouncing Olmert's oblique references to the division of Jerusalem and the relinquishing of Judea and Samaria. Participants in the demonstration sponsored by the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea and Samaria (Yesha), included members of the governing coalition from the Kadima, Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu parties.

Also on Monday night in Washington, Olmert took issue with leaders of US Jewish organizations who voiced their staunch opposition to the dismantling of Jerusalem. Olmert declared at a news conference Monday following his meeting with leaders of U.S. Jewish communities that "the government of Israel has a sovereign right to negotiate anything on behalf of Israel," making it clear that Jews outside of Israel had no right to participate in decisions about the future of Jerusalem. The prime minister told reporters that the issue had "been determined long ago." His remarks were seen as a slap to American Jewish leaders who oppose tentative plans by the Olmert administration to put Jerusalem on the negotiating table.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel, told hundreds of Jews in Chicago Monday night that "Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) is not up for discussion, Yerushalayim is not for sale, Yerushalayim must remain undivided forever." The Orthodox Union (OU) immediately responded to the prime minister's remarks with a statement saying it did not intend to dictate policy to Israel, but expressed its "resolute stand" that all Jews in the world have a share in "the holy city of Jerusalem."

Agudath Israel of America adopted a resolution Sunday at its 85th national convention in Connecticut bluntly stating "Israel should not relinquish parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, and the American government should not pressure the Israeli government into doing so." Both statements echoed an assertion published on the website of the Coordinating Council on Jerusalem which states unequivocally that "World Jewry opposes Israeli negotiations which would include any discussion of ceding sovereignty over part or all of Jerusalem." The group soberly notes in its statement that this is "the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel that a significant group of American Jewish organizations have created a broad united front to pursue a policy directly involving Israel that is based on an explicit principle that supercedes deference to the sitting Israeli government."

Meanwhile in the cities of Ramallah and Hebron, thousands of angry Palestinian protestors clashed with police in what they called a sell-out by a weak and compromised Palestinian leadership. Police shot and killed one protester in Hebron, CNN's Ben Wedeman reported.

The Bush administration expressed its hopes that the peace summit would, "trigger final status talks between Israelis, Palestinians, encourage Israel and the Palestinians to honor "road map" agreements, help to strengthen Palestinian government infrastructure and help to establish a broader Arab-Israeli peace." President Bush vowed to, "do everything in our power to support their quest for peace." The skepticism of a real peace coming to fruition was justified as Israeli and Palestinian leaders acknowledged they did not address any of the divisive issues that have killed so many previous attempts to construct peace deals.

Bush announced that Israeli and Palestinian steering committees were scheduled to meet on December 12th to work out the fine points of a final peace agreement and both Olmert and Abbas vowed to seal a deal by the end of 2008, meeting every two weeks to push the talks forward.

During the peace talks in Annapolis, several Jewish organizations protested the event including Americans For a Safe Israel who called Israel's attempt to make more territorial concessions to the Palestinians "suicidal". Said one protestor who chose to remain anonymous, "Look what happened after Israel forcibly evacuated 10,000 Jewish residents from Gush Katif in Gaza in 2005 in an attempt to appease the Arabs and make peace. Not only did this gesture not make peace, but they (the Palestinians) now use Gaza as a launching pad for daily Kassam rocket attacks on Israeli cities like Sderot, causing death and many causalities. Every time Israel relinquishes land to the Palestinians, the last thing that Israel gets in return is peace. When will we ever learn that the Palestinians don't want peace, but rather, their agenda calls for the total eradication of Israel and the murder of as many Jews that they can".

In Washington, another group of Jewish protestors gathered and referred to the summit in Annapolis as "Munich II". 22 year old Yisroel Rubin said, "Our leaders in the Israeli government are morally and spiritually bankrupt, vapid and empty leaders who are devoid of a sense of Jewish destiny. For them, the Zionist dream has come to a screeching halt. They have removed G-d and Torah from their lives, immersed themselves in corruption and are now leading us down the path to another Auschwitz."

When asked what Israel's alternative was at this juncture to insure the Jewish character of the state of Israel, Rubin responded by saying, "After 1967, Israel should have annexed the liberated territories of Judea and Samaria and arranged for a population transfer of the Arabs who clearly represented a fifth column, a people engaged in seditious activities against Israel. Why would the Arab want to live in a Jewish state? Let him go live as a first class citizen in an Arab state." "Our greatness and most tragic mistake," he said, was not "paying heed to the prescient message of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane who predicted everything that is happening now back in 1979. He saw everything so clearly and warned us that if we do not take action, the very existence of Israel could be in jeopardy and that's exactly what's happening now. All I can say is that our future, like our past is in the hands of G-d. We must continue to pray for the State of Israel, for the Jewish nation."

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