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November 29, 2007, Thursday

Annapolis is not a tabula rasa

In case our Western friends and the Israelis have not yet understood this, let it be known to them that “we want to be the Mediator” of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.Not the facilitator, message carrier, “go-between-er,” “summit-host-er” or even peace-broker! We want to be the Mediator; and with a capital “M.”

Expectations determine the level of satisfaction, not the actual results. What came out of the Annapolis summit is not important; with the level of expectation that Turkey went there with, dissatisfaction and disappointment were pre-ordained. Why this self-gigantification? Why this willingness to add the Turkish name to the list of failed peacemaking efforts?

The answer is multidimensional. On the level of domestic politics, it is prestige and pride of occupying a post that Americans usually fill. On the level of international politics, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle has gained the status of a “test-case” that every prospective world leader needs to address. It is the Riddle of the Sphinx of Middle Eastern politics. And what a coincidence: “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon and on three legs in the evening?” asks the Sphinx. A cynical reply would be “The Israeli and Palestinian leaders!”

Well, no! This is not the Riddle of the Sphinx of Middle Eastern politics. Any world leader that meets the challenge of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle needs to formulate a road map that passes through various numbers of legs, related to various numbers of stomachs, hearts and brains. And s/he has to keep in mind that the number of brains may not match the number of stomachs in this geography.

Why, then, is Turkey so willing to meet the challenge? Listen to this: An Erzurumian, from the city where “undiluted Turks” live, was traveling on the train and he saw a young snob trying with all his strength to pull the emergency brake, but to no avail. A second snob joined his efforts and even with four arms they again failed to move the brake. “Leave it to me!” said the Erzurumian, and in the ease of single hand movement pulled the emergency brake. The huge train stopped immediately, causing a great amount of fear and curiosity among the passengers. “Who did this?” asked the conductor, rushing into the compartment with anger in his eyes. The Erzurumian replied with pride: “I did it, and with only one arm!” Turkey wants to solve the age-old problem of the Middle East because no one else has been able to do so.

The lesson of Annapolis tells us that the similarity between this joke and the current situation is not only that of the Turks and the Erzurumian. Americans, Israelis and to a great extent Palestinians are the snobby boys of that joke. It is not that nobody can find a solution to the problem: nobody wants to find the solution. The lazy husband who hates to do housework will search everywhere in the house for the drill, everywhere except the place where it sits. The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is a painful one and necessitates mutual compromise. The magnitude of the compromise cost the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin his life. Arafat preferred to be literally imprisoned and isolated in his Muqata headquarters instead of suffering the pain of “giving up” his calls for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Mahmoud Abbas is a peace-minded man. But in his speech at the Turkish Parliament just after that of Israeli President Shimon Peres, he gave the signs that there is nothing more he can deliver than good wishes.

The real agenda of the Annapolis summit was to “save the losers”: save George W. Bush from the embarrassment of accomplishing none of his “great” dreams for the Middle East; save Abbas and his factionalized Al-Fatah party from the Hamas siege; save Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from the fame of being the “weakest link” in the chain of Israeli leaders... In that sense, the Annapolis summit is not a tabula rasa. There is nothing new under the American sun.

It is not that nothing meaningful will come out of the summit. We are living in an era of “smile diplomacy,” and so gestures and goodwill signs are indeed productive for keeping the train going... But this train needs to be stopped. Is Turkey the Erzurumian to do that? It believes so...

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