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Phyllis Bennis on Bush administration’s goals for the Annapolis peace talks

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Annapolis, Maryland

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GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: Israel must demonstrate its support for the creation of a prosperous and successful Palestinian state by removing unauthorized outposts, ending settlement expansion, and finding other ways for the Palestinian authority to exercise its responsibilities without compromising Israel’s security. Arab states should also reach out to Israel, work toward the normalization of relations, and then demonstrate in both word and deed if they believe that Israel and its people have a permanent home in the Middle East. The time is right, the cause is just, and with effort I know they can succeed.

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HANADI LOUBANI, MIDDLE EAST ANALYST: Leaders from around the world have gathered today in Annapolis, Maryland for U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks. Delegates from over forty countries, including Syria, are participating in today’s talks. Hamas and Iran are noticeably absent from the negotiations. Among the day’s agenda items are bilateral peace between Israel and Palestine, building the Palestinian economy, and regional issues such as control of the Golan Heights. The agenda makes no mention of the situation in Gaza, nor of critical issues such as settlements, the separation wall, or Palestinian refugees. These Annapolis talks mark a sharp contrast to the previous hands-off policy of President Bush, who ridiculed President Clinton’s aggressive approach to Middle East peace at the end of his presidency. What’s motivating Bush’s investment in this process now? To shed light on this question, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

PHYLLIS BENNIS, SENIOR ANALYST, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: These talks were never designed to even launch serious new negotiations involving Israeli-Palestinian peace. These talks have, in fact, very little to do with either Israel or Palestine. They are far more directed at Arab governments to encourage greater support from those governments for U.S. policies in the Middle East, of war in Iraq, and escalating attacks against Iran. Additionally, they have everything to do with Condoleezza Rice needing a new legacy. It’s not about the world suddenly coming to understand the urgency or Palestine and Israel suddenly having new leaders who are willing to make compromises. It has very little to do with any changes on the ground. Conditions on the ground continue to be absolutely devastating.

LOUBANI: Prime Minister Olmert in his press conference mentioned that he and his government are willing to make a historic compromise.

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EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (SUBTEXT TRANSLATION) : We want peace. We demand an end to terror. An end to resentment and to hatred. We are prepared to make a painful compromise rife with risks in order to realize these aspirations.—27 November, 2007

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BENNIS: Ehud Olmert right now has very little political capital. His popularity ratings are in the low single digits, and he has very little ability to say no to the Bush administration. The Bush administration of course not only pays close to $4 billion a year to Israel in economic and military aid, but has just offered $30 billion more, in military aid specifically, over the next ten years, and continues to provide Israel with crucial international diplomatic support, particularly at the United Nations, ensuring that Israel is not held responsible for its violations of international law. Given all that, Olmert is certainly not in any position to reject an invitation coming from George Bush. He is in a position—and the Bush administration is well aware of this—to be unable to make serious concessions, primarily because of his low political standing and his weakness at home, but also because he knows that the Bush administration will not make serious demands. We should not forget that while Condoleezza Rice is the Bush administration official in charge of these talks, another official, Elliott Abrams, who is President Bush’s top Middle East advisor on the national security council, had said just a few months ago to a group of top leaders of the pro-Israeli Jewish organizations in the U.S., he told them not to worry about Condoleezza’s visits to the region or anything she might ask of Israel, because at the end of the day, he said, President Bush would act as a, quote, “emergency brake”. That was his words, the words of Elliott Abrams. President Bush would be an emergency brake to prevent any Israeli pressure. Any pressure that Condoleezza Rice might ask of the Israelis that they didn’t want to do, President Bush would make sure it didn’t go anywhere. So they know that that’s their basic defense. So they’re not afraid to come to these talks. They are going to be asked to give up nothing of substance, maybe some small symbolic changes. That will be all.

LOUBANI: Ismail Haniyah, the head of Hamas, in his press conference said that this conference is doomed for failure. Do you agree?

BENNIS: I think that if one accepts the real reason for this conference, which has to do with gaining Arab support for U.S. Middle East strategies, and gaining a new identity for Condoleezza Rice, I think it may be very successful. If one asks about the prospect of success for the official reasons for this conference, then I think that the expectation of failure is very, unfortunately, very much a reality.

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