World

Annapolis conference finds little popular support in Middle East

A customer at Jerusalem's Aroma Café works on his computer while a television shows coverage of the Middle East peace talks in the United States.
A customer at Jerusalem's Aroma Café works on his computer while a television shows coverage of the Middle East peace talks in the United States. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

JERUSALEM — The television set in Aroma Cafe was tuned to Fox News coverage of the Annapolis peace conference, but on Monday the sound had been muted and no one seemed to be paying attention.

"I'm more interested in U.S. politics," said Iris, a 46-year-old secretary who declined to give her last name and kept her back to the television while having coffee with her mother. "I don't know what will come of it."

What will come of it?

Ask most people in the Middle East that question and they will tell you the same thing: Not much.

On the eve of the Bush administration's international conference to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a series of polls found widespread skepticism among Israelis and Palestinians about the ability of representatives of perhaps 50 countries gathering in Annapolis, Md., to solve this conflict.

Nearly three-quarters of Israelis expect the conference to lead to nothing. A majority of Palestinians expect that a failure at Annapolis will lead to a surge in violence. And while most people on both sides support peace talks, they aren't willing to make the painful sacrifices necessary to end the conflict.

In the Arab world, political commentary has been decidedly hostile. Most commentators suggest that the conference is a way to pressure Arabs to normalize relations with Israel. The word "normalization," which many Arabs interpret as defeat, crops up in nearly every Arabic-language print or broadcast item on the meeting.

Erfan Nizam al Din, writing for the pan-Arab newspaper al Hayat, condemned the talks in a tirade that accused President Bush of staging "a theatrical gesture" aimed at "saving face for the United States after a series of failures."

Not even the name of the host city is safe. A humorist at a Saudi-owned newspaper, taking advantage of the fact that "ana" in Arabic means "I" and that "police" is a word widely understood in the Middle East, put the sounds together and arrived at: Annapolis, or "I'm the police." That, he joked, was a message from Bush to Middle Eastern leaders.

"You remember that I am the police, and not only for the Middle East or for the peace process, but for the entire world," the humorist, Hamad al Majid, wrote, imagining Bush's opening remarks.

Ben Caspit, a leading analyst for Israel's daily newspaper, Ma'ariv may have captured the Israeli mood best when he derided Annapolis as "the most expensive photo-op in history."

"What are the chances of there being a breakthrough?" said Dore Gold, one of Israel's former United Nations ambassadors and author of "The Fight for Jerusalem." "The chances are not good in light of the lack of political strength on both the Palestinian and Israeli side."

That was a reference to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas both face major problems within their spheres of influence.

Olmert is deeply unpopular among Israelis for his poor handling of last year's war with Hezbollah and is the subject of various criminal investigations.

According to Israeli newspapers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had hoped to prod Olmert into making concessions on Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but she backed off after Olmert warned her that his coalition would crumble if he went too far.

Abbas is considered by many to be weak and ineffective, and he's facing a major challenge from Hamas, the hard-line Islamist party that controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas is threatening to blow up literally any future peace deal with more rockets from Gaza and suicide bombings.

Meanwhile, polls found little willingness among Israelis and Palestinians to compromise on central issues.

The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that about 70 percent of Palestinians oppose dividing control of the religious sites in Jerusalem's Old City. About half of Israelis also oppose any decision to divide authority over the holy sites.

The Palestinian poll also found that about 70 percent want their negotiators to continue press for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what's now Israel. A survey for the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv found that three-quarters of Israelis remain firmly opposed to granting such a right.

Amid the sea of skepticism, there exists an ember of hope. As long as there are negotiations, however slow, they help keep extremists from feeding on the deep well of cynicism, said Uri Dromi, the director of international outreach for the independent Israel Democracy Institute.

"In the Middle East, if you don't talk, you shoot, so talking is good for everybody," he said.

Check out Middle East developments online. Nissenbaum's blog, Checkpoint Jerusalem, can be found at http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/jerusalem. Allam's blog, Middle East Diary, can be found at http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/cairo.

(Nissenbaum reported from Jersualem, Allam, from Cairo. McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo contributed to this report.)

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