The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always been strongly tied to the political agenda of the United States. That is only one manifestation of both sides' unusually deep dependence on external actors. Time and time again, it has been shown that when the parties are left without a minimum of attention from the outside (the US especially) political and security deterioration results. The only times that we have witnessed progress, on the other hand, were those in which the US and other countries exerted special efforts towards making agreements, implementing them, or controlling otherwise explosive situations.
As such, there may be no time more difficult for us than the coming year. The United States' elections, American involvement in Iraq, Arab disengagement for all sorts of reasons including the war, the rise to power of the most extreme right-wing government in the history of Israel and finally, the shift in the balance of power within Palestinian society against the peace camp, a shift born of the absence of any genuine political prospect and Israel's systematic efforts to dismantle the Palestinian Authority as the standard bearer of Palestinian moderation, are all foreboding signs.
Elections in the United States affect the conflict in several ways. Mainly, the American administration will focus on internal American politics, thus neglecting its political investments in the Middle East. Second, since the Middle East is controversial in American politics, and because of the significance of pro-Israel Jewish votes and their accompanying campaign finance contributions, the administration will avoid drawing attention to the Middle East just to avoid any missteps. That is particularly so these days, as any American-proposed solutions are liable to require placing pressure on the Israeli government and exposing public differences. One example of this is the recent US decision to deduct nearly $300 million in loan guarantees from US funds to Israel because of Israel's decision to continue to build its wall. At the moment, at least, the ball appears to be in Israel's court.
On the Palestinian side, the climate is increasingly conducive to peacemaking. There is a new and approved government, a good working relationship between the president and prime minister, and quite hopeful Egyptian-Palestinian efforts towards a comprehensive ceasefire including all of the Palestinian factions.
Israel, on the other hand, has continued building the apartheid/separation wall despite the United Nations vote of 144 countries condemning the wall, and in spite of the public American criticism. Israel insists on expanding its illegal Jewish settlements built in occupied territory and land that is owned by Palestinian individuals who still have the land deeds of ownership. It also continues to impose checkpoints that are responsible for transforming Palestinian life into misery and humiliating all alike. In order to move forward, the United States will have to pressure Israel, and conventional wisdom says that pressuring Israel is impossible in an election year.
The vacuum certain to result is a terribly dangerous one. This Israel government has demonstrated that, barring any damage to its relationship with the United States, there are no limits to the extent to which it will harm Palestinians and the cause of peace (this Israeli government's short-sighted policies have even done significant damage to Israel's image abroad).
Therefore, in order to avoid catastrophe in this critical next year, other major world players, in full coordination with the United States government if possible, must step to the plate. The obvious candidates are the Quartet, the European Union or even just Britain, all of whom have shown themselves useful in previous tough times.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
The Bush administration's approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone through a number of permutations. Upon taking office in 2001, the new American president indicated that he did not intend to get deeply involved in peacemaking between Arabs and Israelis. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, had failed at this seemingly hopeless task, and in so doing wasted valuable American diplomatic energies and prestige. Bush received the Mitchell Report, sent Secretary of State Powell and special envoy Anthony Zinni several times to the region, but avoided any serious American initiative. Under pressure from the Arab world and the international community, the administration agreed to participate in the efforts of the Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) to generate a new peace plan, but with little enthusiasm.
This chronology was punctuated at an early stage by the events of September 11, 2001. US post-9/11 policies, by emphasizing a preemptive, aggressive, zero-tolerance attitude toward terrorism emanating from the Middle East, tended quite naturally to favor Israel's position against that of the Palestinian leadership. Ultimately this developed into the demand that the Palestinians remove Yasser Arafat from effective power and elect an alternative leadership as a precondition for American involvement. But at the same time, Bush became the first American president to officially endorse a two-state solution, and his June 24, 2002 speech, which became a bedrock of his policy, appears to endorse the 1967 lines as the basis for such an outcome.
All the while, Bush could not ignore the role of two important electoral constituencies--part of the organized American Jewish community, and the evangelical Christian right--in supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's positions vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
The administration's policy seemingly changed on the eve of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, when Bush, after months of delay, endorsed the Quartet's roadmap. He thereby accepted a policy position that required immediate concessions from Israel with regard to settlements and the occupation--concessions that the president had hitherto sought to postpone to a more advanced stage of the process, after the Palestinians had chosen a new leader and ended terrorism.
The roadmap timeline--Bush's enthusiastic pre-war endorsement of the document in March 2003, pressure to appoint a new Palestinian prime minister (winter-spring 2003), and a high profile post-war ceremonial launching (June 2003)--points to the war in Iraq as a major American strategic consideration in calibrating the timing and degree of US commitment.
Here the guiding American policy principle appears to have been that if the US was seen to be sincerely trying to end the violence and restore the peace process, this would help it prior to the war in Iraq in recruiting allies and blunting opposition in Europe and the Arab world. Once the war was over, a successful roadmap process would ensure the ongoing goodwill of Iraq's neighbors, just as success in democratizing Iraq would redound positively on the Israeli-Palestinian arena, in keeping with the much talked about positive domino effect.
In this sense, the subsequent post-war decline in American efforts to facilitate the roadmap mainly reflects the administration's growing sense of distress in Iraq, along with the constraints of US presidential elections in late 2004. With all due respect to Bush's religious fervor in presenting his roadmap process to Arab leaders ("I'm on a mission from God"), it was old-fashioned considerations of realpolitik that took over when the going got rough. The needs of Bush's potential voters took primacy: the administration reverted to a conflict-management mode; it ceased to enforce its own peace plan.
How then, do we explain the current flurry of US criticism and pressures on Israel? President Bush has publicly called for Israel to dismantle outposts, cease expanding settlements and reroute the fence. The US supported the Russian initiative for the UN Security Council to endorse the roadmap. It has deducted nearly $300 million from loan guarantees as a penalty for Israeli investments in the settlements and the fence. And Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz have spoken approvingly of informal Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives.
One explanation is Sharon's mistakes and failings. The administration was reportedly livid over his transparent attempts to "legalize" outposts so that roadmap demands no longer apply to them. It is shocked by the deal he's intent on doing, with the help of "old Europe" (Germany), with Hizballah, a major terrorist enemy. And it is keenly aware of growing criticism of the prime minister by senior serving and former Israeli security officials and by the Israeli public.
A second is the administration's apparent determination that, despite election year considerations, it cannot afford to allow Israel to ignore the "red lines" it has laid down over recent months concerning settlements and cooperation with new Palestinian governments. It is serving notice that, precisely because it wants relative peace and quiet in the Israeli-Palestinian sector for the coming election year, Sharon should not take it for granted, and Israel has to accept certain restrictions on its initiatives.
At the end of the day, this is in no way a crisis in US-Israel relations--something neither side wants. What the administration appears to seek for the coming year is a relatively low profile for our conflict, meaning no provocations from either side--even if the roadmap process is not advanced.
Sharon's response--a PR flurry of ambiguous hints of new initiatives, bilateral and unilateral--and the solidification of Yasser Arafat's power as supreme Palestinian leader, both appear to indicate that neither side has yet developed a realistic strategy for peace. Under these circumstances, only an energetic American commitment will make a difference. And that is not about to happen.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
bitterlemons.org: How would you gauge the American public mood vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Farsakh: The major issues are Iraq and the economy. Coverage of Palestine shows how bad the wall is, for example, but does not criticize [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon nor is it supportive of the Geneva initiative.
bitterlemons.org: Do you see ways that this public mood is playing into the run-up to the elections?
Farsakh: The problem is that we know what the position of the Republicans is concerning the conflict. We have the experience of the past three years of [President George W.] Bush, with his being so supportive of Sharon and allowing the Israeli government basically to do what it does best. For Palestinians, this has been quite one-sided and catastrophic, and actually in contrast with previous US positions.
From the Democrats, we are not hearing what they would do and what might be the alternative. There is some backstage work in support of the Geneva initiative, things that you don't hear about in the press and mostly in academic and policymaking circles. But as far as the Democrats are concerned, there seems to be no real position.
bitterlemons.org: What about independent candidates, such as Ralph Nader?
Farsakh: This has not yet seemed to take off. A lot of people have been surprised as to why Ralph Nader is not yet on the scene.
One big concern in the US is what to do with the Patriot Act. An alternative voice will be one that tries to tackle the issue of September 11 legislation that very badly hit the Arab-American community, among them Palestinians. Many are in detention, are being deported, so civil rights issues are on the agenda if you are on a progressive platform.
And as always in the US, foreign issues are not campaign issues. Americans are much more concerned with domestic issues or major issues like the war, which involves US soldiers. There is starting to be real opposition to the war; everyday two are three soldiers are being killed, and that is really having an effect on people here.
bitterlemons.org: With a Republican agenda so supportive of Sharon, how do you explain the hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees held back because Israel continues to build the wall?
Farsakh: It is my understanding that this is a diplomatic move to say that "we are not fully supportive of all Sharon does," but that the United States is still not ready to throw its strength against a different position. This is a tactical position, not a genuine change in position. And we are talking about taxpayers' money going to a wall that will only create more refugees--that doesn't really support the US peacekeeping mission in the world.
bitterlemons.org: What do you think will be the impact of the elections on the situation on the ground in Palestine?
Farsakh: Perhaps that is the question that is most difficult to answer. It is very scary for all of us here--Palestinians, activists for Palestine and people on a higher level--the positions that the United States has taken. The Republicans are getting a lot of criticism on Iraq--it's not working, it's backfiring--and they are getting a lot of criticism from the Europeans.
But my suspicion is that the Republicans will be reelected. That will be a carte blanche for their politics in Iraq, and that will mean they will then allow Israel to do whatever it wants to do. The Likud is very strong here, and their financiers are very strong.
If the Democrats were to win, I think their solution would be to find a way out of Iraq very quickly and then perhaps to return to the agenda of the Clinton era and perhaps be more firm with Israel (although I don't really know what firm is). Firm seems to be saying that you are not going to give money [to Israel] for the wall, but at the same time giving a great deal of money for settlements.
But I also think that people in Palestine are waiting to see what happens in Iraq to know what will happen in Palestine. Iraq is dominating the agenda.
-Published 1/12/2003 ©bitterlemons.org
Political economist Leila Farsakh is a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
How will the 2004 elections influence the US role?
by Eran Lerman
Common wisdom, sometimes laced with a degree of malice, has it that the US cannot do much to help the peace process along in an election year, let alone an election year as contentious and tense as 2004 promises to be: "no president would antagonize American Jews by imposing a solution on Israel, when he is up for re-election."
There is, of course--as in all effective distortions--a kernel of informative truth in this assertion. No US president--in an election year, or any year--would gladly antagonize an active and highly committed and mobilized community. Moreover, being attentive to the legitimate needs of Israel--for reasons which combine good strategic sense, a commonality of values, and shrewd political calculation--is by now "as American as apple pie," and has been a mainstay of policy for every administration, at least since President John F. Kennedy first defined this as a special relationship. After all, there is little left of the artificial lines separating foreign and domestic policy. North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion, policy on AIDS in Africa, relations with Mexico all have merit, but were also influenced by the support and active advocacy of important and pertinent American constituencies.
And yet, this in itself is not the whole story, or even the most important factor. Considerations related to "the Jewish vote" are neither the first nor the fourth reason why the US will not impose a solution:
1. To begin with, American policy in general--indeed, the basic concepts underlying the new "industry" of mediation, based on US practices--rejects the prospect of externally imposed solutions, which will always be, by definition, unpopular and brittle. Experience has shown that a strong and stable outcome can only emerge if the two sides learn to listen to each other's needs, not steer them into a collision course with an external power.
2. Moreover, in the specific Arab-Israel context, American administrations--ever since President Eisenhower came to regret the pressure on Prime Minister Ben Gurion to withdraw from Sinai without peace in 1957--have come to the conclusion that an overly intrusive role by the US makes peace less likely to happen. Given the basic asymmetry of the situation, it tends to play up Arab expectations, and thus reduces the prospects for meaningful compromise. Hence the famous statement by Secretary of State James Baker, back in 1989, that the US cannot want peace more than the sides themselves, and will not "deliver" Israel.
3. Any US commitment to support some Palestinian aspiration, at the present time, must first be based on a Palestinian commitment--to decide which side they are on in the war on terrorism, and to act accordingly. Until they do, they cannot appeal for a US role--and then complain bitterly that the president is openly calling for a new Palestinian leadership and refuses to do any further business with Yasser Arafat.
4. Finally, the US will not be swept into a position in which it agrees to bypass the Israeli political process. Respect for the outcome of a democratic vote is a profound American value.
American Jews love peace. Every other synagogue, congregation or temple carries the term "shalom" in its name. And yet for these four reasons, they stand guard against the temptation of choosing the option of American coercion--and will continue to do so in the future. A great majority among them feels that coercion cannot serve as a "shortcut" to peace. Today, as ever, they are able to influence policy only when the broad outlines of their positions fit comfortably with general American interests and values. Thus, they will support and even demand some Israeli "give" on controversial questions, such as the settlements; but will always back Israel on security and identity issues, such as the fence, the "right of return," and above all, the status of Jerusalem. On all of these issues, they can expect their sensibilities to be in line with those of the majority of Americans, as represented by the US Congress.
Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman served for many years as a strategic analyst in the IDF Intelligence Branch. He has taught at Haifa and Tel Aviv universities and is presently director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel and Middle East Office.
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