Annapolis, or the absurdity of postmodern politics

Khaled Hroub
22 November 2007

It is not really difficult to discern what the United States hopes to achieve by hosting the conference in Annapolis, Maryland, now scheduled (after much uncertainty over the date) for 27 November 2007. In the same way it is rather easy to figure out what Israel will gain from the fact of this meeting and its own attendance. In a sentence: both Americans and Israelis want this conference to take place for its own sake, without any agreements or declarations having to emerge from it.

In their eyes, simply to hold the meeting is the objective and counts as a success - one that serves several agendas, but not the one that really counts: resolving the historical conflict between the Palestinians and Israel's Zionist project. The key to understanding Annapolis, as so many comparable events in the middle east, can be expressed in Henry Kissinger's "classical" (and ingenuous) formulation: a "peace process" is a substitute for peace itself, and it could take for ever. Annapolis is part of this "process".

In this light, it is really difficult to understand why the Palestinian side is prepared to participate in this surreal event. After all, there is next to total agreement before the event not only among the two main contending sides, but among almost every interested party - that the conference will fail to promote peace. It is a moment for black humour when organisers as well as participants are at pains to curb ambitions, lower expectations and warn against excessive optimism regarding Annapolis - as if anybody who is following events on the ground were to raise ambitions or express any optimism. The misjudgment here seems total. Still, the preparations are underway - for the conference, once declared, cannot be undone. In times like these, traditional criteria of success and failure no longer apply.

Khaled Hroub is director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project in association with the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000), and Hamas: a Beginner's Guide (Pluto Press, 2006).He is a frequent author for major Arab newspapers such as al-Hayat, as well as openDemocracy

Also by Khaled Hroub in openDemocracy:

"Hamas's path to reinvention" (9 October 2006)

"Palestine's argument: Mecca and beyond" (6 March 2007)

This article is being simultaneously published in the journal of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, by mutual cooperation and kind agreement of the author

A visual triumph

Annapolis thus represents - consciously or unconsciously - one of the great surreal signatures of postmodern politics: a world where images, language and symbols take preference over meaning, content and results. It is an example of how powerful modern states, in their presumptuous handling of the political issues of "others", abandon real politics and adopt what may be describes as postmodern (non-)politics.

Most manifestations of postmodernity - be they political, cultural, literary or social - are impelled by a temptation to escape from the strictures of sequence and logic that are foundational of modern thought. "If A follows B and then arrives at C" - all this can appear very tedious, restrictive of a human creativity which may want to arrive at C without having to pass through B, or may want to set out from A with no intention of even going to Z, ever.

This desire to break out of the prison of rigid logic into a wide open space of expression, a realm of floating meaning no longer concerned with ends and objectives, has catapulted human creativity to dazzling results - in the arts, in literature, in culture.

Not so in politics. Carried away by language and form, and with no regard to content and political realities, such political postmodernism leads to a constant and transparent denial of reality. Thus it becomes possible - in stark contrast to the overwhelming majority of observers, who still apply the standards of "conventional" modern politics - to declare Annapolis a success already, even before it has happened.

The reason such an astonishing act of intellectual legerdemain is possible is that Annapolis is emphatically not about making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Annapolis is about the image and the representation of the United States in a middle east that is ablaze, locked in a downward spiral of destruction of which Washington is a central agent.

Annapolis is about peddling the image of an American diplomacy committed to addressing the root cause of all the troubles in the middle east - the Palestinian issue - even as the US's political, military and economic efforts are focused on completely different issues (Iraq, Iran, oil, Sudan...). Annapolis convenes "negotiating" parties, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, who have nothing to negotiate about but who are capable of maintaining a smile and handshake for the cameras, and holding meetings to no ends and no results - which the media then reports as, in and by itself, a "creative effort".

Also in openDemocracy on the Palestinians, Israel and Annapolis:

David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (1 February 2006)

Richard Youngs, "The European Union and Palestine: a new engagement" (28 March 2007)

Mient Jan Faber & Mary Kaldor, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (20 May 2007)

Pierre Schori, "Europe and the Arab world: divided souls" (30 May 2007)

Daniel Seidemann, "Annapolis and the ‘Jerusalem paradigm'" (30 October 2007)

Mariano Aguirre & Mark Taylor, "Annapolis: the conditions of failure" (12 October 2007)

These individuals differ on every substantial political matter and are unable even to agree on a common statement of the problem; but in their domestic weakness, their inability to deliver anything, they resemble each other. On this foundation, Annapolis will build an extravagant visual media performance whose profusion of hollow imagery disguises its evasion of and indifference to a myriad of issues on the ground.

A political choice

The postmodern absurdity of Annapolis would be incomplete without enlisting the Palestinians, who are being led along (and goaded) like a herd of cattle. The sheer magnitude of the event and its set-up has a cumulative psychological effect: it makes the Palestinians feel they would carry another great global and "historical" responsibility if they were to say what they really think - that they will not go to a conference which is a failure even before it starts, and which anyway is more concerned with regional objectives than with the Palestinian cause.

In the eyes of the world, any attempt to escape from this scenario will be turned into another "historical irresponsibility": once more, the Palestinians are the reason for the failure of peace in the middle east! But aside from any desire to deflect such accusations, what is the logic of the Palestinians' presence? After all:

* Israel declares openly that it will not discuss any of the essential issues at the conference; and yet the Palestinians are going

* Israel declares that it wants the conference to confirm that its security is more important than a Palestinian state (and of course than the Palestinian people); and yet the Palestinians are going

* Israel wants all Arab countries to be present in the conference, in a new bid to "normalise" relations with them and create the impression that what happens "over there" in the middle east is but a small diversion on a long and laborious regional agenda; and yet the Palestinians are going.

Ehud Olmert has said a lot over recent weeks to confirm the image of the conference projected to the world: that it will restart the negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, though reaching a comprehensive solution of the conflict may take a long time, perhaps thirty to forty years; and that the conflict is complicated and should not be expected to be resolved in one conference or within a definite timeframe. The Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni launched into more extreme, rightwing litanies, in hope to curry populist favour in future elections.

All of this is in striking harmony with the postmodern signature of Annapolis, its lack of any content. Even more amazing, all of it has come in the form of statements geared to "clarify" Israel's position towards the conference. But why do Israelis and Palestinians need a global conference to restart negotiations, if that is what Olmert wants? Why are Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas meeting in Jerusalem, on a regular (and televised) basis, if not to keep the "peace process" going?

There is only one way out of this postmodern daze: a clear Palestinian refusal to attend a conference devoid of any substance. The Palestinians need a courageous decision from their leadership that sets the record straight. The Palestinians cannot afford to lose time and effort in conferences that are just for show, while their situation deteriorates, their rights are lost, and their blood is spilled on a daily basis.

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