New summit produces nothing new — as usual

Whenever the Arab League gets together for its biannual meetings, journalists in Cairo—where the pan-Arab body is based—joke that they can write the final communiqué themselves, as they wait for the officials to come out of their meetings and talk to the media. Seven years might have passed since the last major Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but the same things are always said at these summits, so we might as well have played the Cairo press packs’ game of inking the final statement ourselves.

Being in the region—I was in Cairo at the beginning of November, and I’m writing this from Tel Aviv—it’s easy to see why Annapolis produced nothing new: Both Arab and Israeli politics have failed to produce anything new for years now.

I was a correspondent for Reuters News Agency in Jerusalem in 1998. I came back for the first time in nine years so that I could speak at a Tel Aviv University conference marking the 30th anniversary of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s surprise visit to Israel, which I wrote about in a column. To this day, I am still in trouble with Egyptian State Security for living in Israel.

Surveying the Israeli political scene since my return, it was as if the major players have spent the past nine years engaged in a bizarre game of musical chairs. The same names are still on the scene—they’re just sitting in different chairs.

On the Palestinian political scene, resist the temptation to confuse combustibility with change or new ideas. Just as they were back in the 1990s, Fatah and Hamas are still fighting it out—only more overtly now. New and alternative voices are pushed aside, discouraged and marginalized.

In Egypt, it’s just the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood on the political stage at the moment, and it looks like our republic will give birth to dynastic politics that will install the president’s son into the presidency. It’s no wonder that with the same man ruling for the past 26 years, Egypt—long considered the leader of the Arab world—has run out of ideas.

And so on and so forth.

Old and stale ideas are natural outcomes of old and stale politicians. Just because President Bush—14 months away from the end of his presidency—has suddenly realized he’s done nothing substantial to push along peace, that doesn’t mean that his invitations to the White House alone are sufficient.

On the political level in the Middle East, I am resolutely pessimistic. Annapolis didn’t change that.

Where it did help, though, was to provide a poignant backdrop for the Tel Aviv University conference on Nov. 28 and 29. As Dr. Mira Tzoreff, an Egypt expert at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, was planning the conference this summer, Bush gave her quite a gift by saying he’d host the Annapolis talks sometime in November.

So as we meet for the conference to discuss Israeli-Egyptian relations 30 years after that historic visit, there are lessons to be learned from the Camp David peace treaty that are useful for all peace talks.

The young Egyptians I interviewed for my conference presentation embodied those lessons. They were all born after Sadat’s visit. In other words, for their entire lives, Egypt has been at peace with Israel. And yet although those young people disagreed on support for Sadat’s peace initiative, they all shared a negative attitude toward Israel. Unless Israel made peace with the Palestinians and ended its occupation, they said they would never accept it.

Hostility toward Israel can also be traced to the Egyptian regime’s continued scapegoating of Israel over the years—made easier by Israel’s continued settlement expansion and its heavy-handed attacks on Lebanon last summer.

Thirty years after making peace, Israeli journalists who visit Egypt are often snubbed, and Egyptians refuse to visit Israel altogether.

Even so, Tzoreff insists that she will never lose her optimism. It takes nerves of steel to be an Israeli academic organizing a conference to mark the 30th anniversary of an Egyptian leader’s visit. The Egyptian ambassador didn’t take part in the opening night’s proceedings, sending his number two, instead.

I am the only Egyptian invited who agreed to come. I know there aren’t any Egyptian academics who organized similar conferences to which they invited Israelis. And yet those young Egyptians who were uniformly negative in their attitudes toward Israel were still curious to hear how Israelis viewed them and reacted to their comments at the Tel Aviv University conference.

Many co-existence efforts go unnoticed, but it is these nonpolitical actors who are coming up with the new ideas. The leaders at Annapolis have run out of them.