Do you know the definition of a pessimist?” asks Afif Safieh, head of the PLO delegation to the U.S. He answers with a bitter smile, “An optimist with information.” There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism arising from the peace talks restarted at last November’s Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland, and from President Bush’s January visit to Israel and Palestine.
It must surely be progress that, at Annapolis, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to meet every two weeks to continue their high-level diplomacy. And in January, during his first visit to Israel and Palestine, Bush surprised just about everyone by insisting, “These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent. ... Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interests of both parties.” Bush optimistically said he believes the two sides will be able to sign an agreement before he leaves office in January 2009.
However, as long as the U.S. follows a unilateral approach, hinders the work of the United Nations, and funds the Israeli occupation of Palestine, there is little hope of achieving anything. As Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes points out, while both sides have an equal right to peace and security, “there is a grossly unequal balance of power between the occupied Palestinians and the occupying Israelis.”