Silence speaks loudly in Annapolis

The Baltimore Sun

Excuse me? What was that I didn't hear?

Journalists from around the world lined up early at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium yesterday to attend the one-day Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis. After getting credentials, the reporters were sent through metal detectors, guided onto a waiting bus, schlepped down to the U.S. Naval Academy and directed into a gymnasium where they could view the statements of President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on a giant screen.

Those arriving early had to wait. And wait. And wait.

And once the speakers arrived, they all talked about peace. Bush talked about it, and what Israelis and Palestinians must do to get it.

"The Palestinian state must govern justly and dismantle the infrastructure of terror," Bush said. "The Israelis must be ready to bring an end to the occupation that began in 1967."

Abbas talked about peace and how opinion polls among Israelis and Palestinians show that both peoples overwhelmingly support the negotiations now in progress. Then it was Olmert's turn.

"We want peace," Olmert said. "We demand an end to terror and incitement to hatred."

But if you listened closely to Abbas and Olmert, listened very closely, it was what wasn't said that was significant. There was indeed a sound, and it was the sound of the peace process unraveling even before it started.

Olmert began his comments by saying, "I came here today from Jerusalem." An Arab journalist to my right snorted "Jerusalem, huh?" and then chuckled a derisive, skeptical this-peace-agreement-ain't-gonna-work kind of laugh.

The status of Jerusalem - which was to be an international city administered by the United Nations in the original U.N. partition plan of 1947 - is supposed to be part of the negotiations that will lead to this peace that has Bush, Abbas and Olmert all atwitter. But I suspected the Arab journalist had the feeling that Olmert, by mentioning that he had just come from the city, was kind of rubbing the Palestinians' noses in the fact that Israelis now have control of Jerusalem.

That was when I first heard the peace process unraveling. The second time was when Olmert finished. But this time it was what he didn't say.

Abbas had mentioned Palestinian refugees and U.N. Resolution 194. Olmert acted as if he'd never heard of U.N. Resolution 194. But I had the feeling I had. To be certain, I turned to Sanaa Youssef, an Egyptian journalist from the Akhbar Elyom publishing house who was sitting next to me.

"What's U.N. Resolution 194?" I asked her.

"The right of return for Palestinian refugees," she answered.

"Olmert didn't mention that," I pointed out.

"It's always been that way from the Israeli side," Youssef answered, "to neglect talking about that."

(In 2001, the French publication Le Monde Diplomatique did publish this Israeli statement about U.N. Resolution 194: "The State of Israel solemnly expresses its sorrow for the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees, their suffering and losses, and will be an active partner in ending this terrible chapter that was opened 53 years ago.")

U.N. Resolution 194, to be specific, was adopted on Dec. 11, 1948, about 10 months after fighting erupted between Israeli and Arab armies. It's called the "right of return" resolution because Article 11 of it "resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible."

There's something else U.N. Resolution 194 should be called: a deal killer.

Palestinians insist on it. If it's not on the table as part of the negotiating process, that's a deal killer.

Olmert didn't mention it, which makes me wonder if the resolution being on the table is a deal killer for the Israelis.

I didn't go to that mini-internment camp for journalists yesterday to hear a lot of wishy-washy talk about peace with no substance. I went in hopes of hearing something new. It would have been nice to hear Olmert say "You know, we might consider taking a look at that U.N. Resolution 194. It's not practical for Palestinians to return, but compensation would be in order. Let's get the British to pay it; after all, they helped create this mess."

Or to hear Abbas say, "For Pete's sake, it's been 59 years since U.N. Resolution 194 was adopted. That 'earliest practicable date' language from the resolution is itself dated. Isn't it time we moved on?"

Instead, we got rhetoric that hints of a peace process slowly winding down before it even gets started. How in the world are peace negotiations supposed to progress with that Titanic-sized deal killer on the table?

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