The forthcoming visit by US President George W. Bush to Israel and Palestine is a significant event and reflects Washington's serious intention to help change the miserable situation here. The question, however, is: can he make a difference?
The intervening period since the Annapolis conference has unfortunately confirmed the skeptic's analysis of that event. The continued and illegal Jewish settlement expansions have poisoned the atmosphere and created tension that has paralyzed the bilateral negotiations, the one significant outcome of Annapolis.
Meanwhile, the last two weeks have also witnessed a massive escalation in Gaza, which has suffered the highest level of casualties in recent times. Even in the West Bank--where the Palestinian Authority has been trying to fulfill some of its obligations under the roadmap, notably in terms of improving security, the prime example being the successful law and order enforcement campaign in Nablus--we have seen an increase in unnecessary Israeli military incursions accompanied by sweeping arrest campaigns and material destruction.
These developments have undermined the already shaky credibility of the PA in the eyes of the Palestinian people and caused the normally restrained Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to issue an angry statement accusing Israel of trying to undermine recent achievements of the Palestinian government on the economic and security fronts. For his part, President Mahmoud Abbas attacked the Israeli practices at a recent rally to commemorate Fateh's anniversary, and warned that they threatened to derail the recently reactivated political process. Indeed, a campaign against the PA's participation in negotiations with Israel as long as settlement expansions continue is gaining momentum.
This is the context to which Bush arrives. It places on him an additional burden that goes beyond simply encouraging the two sides to proceed with the negotiations that Annapolis launched. The American president will be faced with a number of major challenges that he has to address with clarity, at least behind closed doors.
One of these challenges is the Gaza situation. There, the American-encouraged Israeli-enforced economic sanctions against the impoverished Strip have failed to achieve their objective of bringing to an end Hamas control. The consequent split between Gaza and the West Bank persists and undermines the legitimacy of the PA. Part of this challenge includes resolving tensions at the Gaza-Egypt border.
The second major challenge is Israeli settlement expansions that, if continued, will unquestionably sabotage the already fragile bilateral negotiations and further discredit and weaken the PA. If expansions end, furthermore, the hostile reaction in Israel could irreparably damage Israeli PM Ehud Olmert's coalition government.
The third challenge that Bush has to deal with is the reluctance of the Israeli leadership to engage in negotiating core final status issues. The conclusion Palestinian negotiators have reached is that while the Israeli leadership is interested in, and benefits from, being party to a political process, Israel's domestic constraints seem not to allow Israeli negotiators to engage on controversial issues, leaving the whole exercise moot.
Bush has two possible approaches open to him. First, he can face these challenges head on and try to support both leaderships by encouraging them to face down their domestic skeptics, and help provide them with tangible achievements and progress in the peace process. American support will meanwhile compensate for domestic challenges.
Alternatively, he might take the Annapolis approach and shirk the very real differences between the two sides, lapsing instead into generalities to give an impression of seriousness and manage public opinion rather than move toward real change.
This latter approach is the most likely pursued by an American administration whose Middle East policies are usually limited by Israeli positions. But this will unfortunately lead, sooner or later, to a further deterioration. This will result from the continuing violent escalation in Gaza and a probable explosion in the West Bank as a result of Israel's settlement policies and the frequent Israeli incursions into Palestinian populated areas, still separated by an ever-growing number of roadblocks and checkpoints.- Published 7/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Why is US President George W. Bush coming to Israel and Palestine this week? This visit, his first here as president, was tacked on to a wider sweep of the Gulf countries and seems to have been born almost as an afterthought following the Annapolis meeting of late November. Ostensibly, it is intended to give a push to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process announced at that meeting. That is certainly one way of seeing the visit.
According to leaks to the Israeli press, Bush's visit will be exploited by Israeli PM Ehud Olmert to pursue negotiations aimed at providing American validation for Olmert's concept of the shape of a future Palestinian state: concessions to Israel's security concerns in the air and on the ground, including in the Jordan Valley and the settlement blocs. In other words Olmert, according to this take on Bush's visit, intends to recruit additional US support so as to strengthen his negotiating position vis-a-vis Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and, accordingly, enhance his image in the eyes of the Israeli public. Any connection between this direction of events and the actual success of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is coincidental: Olmert has to convince Abbas, not Bush.
Bush and Olmert will also certainly discuss the interface between the Israel-Arab peace process and the American-Arab-Israeli effort to block Iran's nuclear effort in the current post-National Intelligence Estimate phase. Bush intends to reassure Israel that the US understands its security concerns regarding Iran, even though his anti-Iran policy has been rendered toothless by the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. Hopefully, Israel and the US will also discuss Israel's legitimate security concerns for the inevitable moment when Washington gets down to serious negotiations with Tehran.
Then too, one purpose of Bush's visit is apparently to offer moral support and photo opportunities to his good friend PM Ehud Olmert, who will on January 30 confront a highly critical Winograd final report on his performance during the war in Lebanon a year and a half ago. Olmert is currently pulling out all the media stops and political maneuvers in an effort to maximize public sympathy in anticipation of the report.
There is one thing Bush is apparently not coming to do. He will not put heavy pressure on Olmert, publicly or in private, to start carrying out his roadmap phase I obligations and energetically remove outposts--he has already relegated the task of monitoring that effort to a committee. "I will talk about Israeli settlement expansion, about how that is... an impediment to success", Bush told one interviewer last week. That's about as heavy as the pressure will get. Olmert will survive it. Nor will Bush publicly tell the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership that unless and until they find a way to reform the Fateh party and restore their rule in the Gaza Strip their peace efforts cannot bear fruit.
In other words, Bush is not coming to make a serious effort to advance a substantive peace process. His visit, like the Annapolis conference that preceded it, does not represent a major turning point in his administration's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this regard, his latest attempt to frame the objective of his final year in office as "defining the outlines of a Palestinian state" is decidedly less ambitious than actually solving the conflict. Yet even this new and more modest goal won't be achieved if it depends on substantive American input. This visit, like Bush's Israeli-Palestinian peace process in general, looks to be all hype and superficiality. Yes, Bush is a "known quantity" (on whose watch, he argues, the parties should wish to make a peace deal)--but that's part of the problem.
Perhaps it's better that way. Since 9/11, most of what Bush has touched in the Middle East has gone sour. His democracy reform project enfranchised militant Islamists. His conquest of Iraq has destabilized that state and enhanced and empowered Iran's hegemonic drive there and in the Levant. The US occupation of Afghanistan is bogged down, and Bush is liable to be known as the president who "lost" Pakistan. His encouragement 18 months ago for Israel to deal a lethal blow to Hizballah in Lebanon (where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the "birth pangs of the new Middle East") pushed the Olmert government to multiply its mistakes there. His administration's initial effort to build up Palestinian security forces in the hope of undoing the damage of US-sponsored elections helped trigger Hamas' military takeover in Gaza half a year ago. Now his drive to denuclearize Iran has fizzled.
No matter. Both Olmert and Abbas are in any case too weak to sustain a successful peace process.
Reading and watching Bush's pre-visit interviews to the mainstream Israeli press is almost a surreal experience. His friendship with and admiration for Ehud Olmert override any inclination to see Israel's prime minister as the vast majority of Israelis see him. His insistence that "freedom", "liberty" and "democracy" will win out in the Middle East flies in the face of the disastrous course of events catalyzed by his administration's efforts in the region.
The upcoming Bush visit will be no less surreal.- Published 7/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
an interview with Ali Jarbawi
bitterlemons: Are you optimistic about US President George W. Bush's visit?
Jarbawi: Palestinians are not optimistic. We always hear a lot of talk and promises but on the ground we see the opposite. Settlements are expanding, Israeli army incursions continue unabated, there are arrests, and land is confiscated. All these Israeli policies continue and we hear only promises. We need action rather than words.
bitterlemons: What exactly do you see Washington's role as being?
Jarbawi: We have to wait and see the level of real involvement. The US is talking about moving ahead with the peace process and how crucial the year 2008 is, but up to now we haven't seen much. We have to see if Washington is committed not only in words but in reality.
bitterlemons: But the mere fact that the American president is coming...
Jarbawi: It could be for public relations, it could have to do with other US problems in the region, and it could have to do with the election campaign in the US. We want to see what Bush will deliver. A visit alone is good but not sufficient.
bitterlemons: What do you make of criticism that the US is acting primarily as a divider of Palestinians, something we hear from Hamas?
Jarbawi: It all depends on the political horizon. If there is a real political horizon and a real commitment on behalf of the US administration to move ahead, if we see commitment from Bush and his administration, I think talk of dividing Palestinians will be minimized. This means the administration has to put pressure on Israel. What the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is asking for is the minimum acceptable to Palestinians, so the pressure has to be on Israel. But if we get only talk and no pressure, then talk of dividing Palestinians may gain momentum.
bitterlemons: Is Washington able to apply this pressure?
Jarbawi: There is a difference between ability and intention. The US is able, but doesn't have the intention. This is because of domestic politics, because of the pro-Israel lobby and also because Arab countries are not exerting enough effort to this end.
Actually, I think the Americans and Israelis should understand that if they miss this opportunity--which is not for Palestinians, it is for Israelis and Americans to have a two-state solution--what they will have in the near future is not a two-state solution but a growing demand from Palestinians for a one-state solution, which Israel really doesn't want.
bitterlemons: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to have said as much recently. But if Olmert's coalition is weak can we expect anything from him in the coming months?
Jarbawi: We can expect movement in negotiations. Just meeting here and there is simply not enough. There has to be substance. We have been on a negotiations track for almost 15 years and it has yielded nothing. We need commitment. Americans need this process not because they necessarily want to reach a settlement but because of external factors in the region, Iraq, Lebanon, etc.
Nor should we overestimate the weakness of Olmert's coalition, because this is used to undermine the Palestinian position, to lower Palestinian expectations and demands. The Israelis should understand that either they talk about a two-state solution in which minimum Palestinian demands are met or otherwise they will have a one-state solution on their hands in which the demographic factor they so fear will become a real possibility.
bitterlemons: How long can Abbas continue insisting on negotiations when every time there is a major event, Annapolis or Paris, Israel appears to act to undermine him with settlement building or incursions?
Jarbawi: Israel will continue to do so. Palestinian strategy should differentiate between continuing the negotiations track to reach a settlement that satisfies the minimum demands of the Palestinians and working on the ground to prepare the people for disappointment and improve their steadfastness. The Palestinian side should insist on negotiations, but should not believe that this will yield the desired result. Israel is simply not forthcoming.
We have internal problems--corruption, the division between the West Bank and Gaza--that we should also prioritize in order to find a unified strategy. And that strategy cannot simply be negotiations and nothing but.
bitterlemons: Do you think that there is an understanding in the White House that the situation is critical?
Jarbawi: No. This is partly because as Palestinians and Arabs we are not making this point clear. We have to tell the Israelis and Americans as clearly as possible that we are going to give only this chance--and Bush himself talks about 2008--this year. If, after 2008, the minimum Palestinian demands are not met then we will not continue negotiating forever. We will end our aspirations for a two-state solution and start pursuing a one-state solution. The Palestinian side right now is pursuing a two-state solution but Israel isn't. We cannot accept that a Palestinian state becomes a state of the leftovers of whatever Israel doesn't want. The two-state solution is based on the 1967 borders. If Israel wants more than that, then this is not a two-state solution and this we cannot accept.- Published 7/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Ali Jarbawi is professor of political science at Birzeit University.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Modest goals, doubtful results
by Aluf Benn
Seven years after taking office, US President George W. Bush will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah for the first time to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. His stated goal is unpretentious: Bush seeks an agreement "to define what a Palestinian state would look like" by the end of 2008. Implementation, however, will be contingent on fulfilling the terms of the roadmap, meaning that it will be deferred to the post-Bush era. The other goal of this week's trip is to assuage the anxiety in Israel and the Gulf states over the recent American National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program, which prompted fears in the region that the United States is leaving its allies to face Iran alone and bare-handed.
Bush's modest plan for promoting the two-state solution is hardly exciting, but nevertheless, without his close stewardship even its meager goals will prove unattainable. In the five weeks following their pledge to "make every effort" to conclude a deal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have failed to move even an inch forward. Once back from the American-orchestrated international event in Annapolis, both sides have quickly returned to their old habits of mudslinging and procrastination.
Olmert and Abbas may share personal chemistry and even similar views about the advantages of coexistence over conflict, but they lack either the public support or the political strength to overcome their respective obstacles. Even the minuscule progress they have achieved so far was made possible only through Bush's intervention. The president's decision to hold a peace conference, prodded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, prodded Olmert to withdraw the Israeli refusal to discuss final-status issues before the roadmap's first-stage conditions are met. The joint statement read in Annapolis was attained by aggressive American mediation, and only after any politically contentious language was edited out.
Can Bush facilitate a deal, even on principle? The answer depends on his political and personal stance, and on the situation on the ground. Is Bush the omnipotent leader of the world, or an extremely unpopular lame duck marred by his failure in Iraq? Apparently, he is a little of both. His involvement is necessary but insufficient in itself. Even Bush's more involved predecessor, Bill Clinton, lacked the ability to cut a deal during his last year in office. An outgoing American president has more time to play foreign policy--after all, the domestic arena shifts to the election campaigns--but given his early expiration date, his efforts are extremely sensitive to foot-dragging by his interlocutors. They can always bet on a better deal with a successor.
To his credit, Bush is aware of his limits. In his pre-trip interviews to the Israeli media he pledged not to impose a deal, but merely offered his good offices to the parties. "I'm a known quantity," Bush said.
The situation on the ground is hardly more promising. The war of attrition in Gaza is heating up. And while Bush has all but ignored that Hamas-controlled area in his public statements, the outcome of events in Gaza will have considerable influence on any Israeli-Palestinian deal. Lacking a credible response to rocket fire, Israel will not withdraw from the West Bank's high terrain and turn its population centers and international airport into the next Sderot. In the West Bank, Abbas has acted against Hamas but failed to rein in the militant elements of Fateh. Security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian authorities is at best half-hearted, and the IDF operates daily in Palestinian-supervised areas like Nablus.
Olmert, whom Bush called "a man of vision, a strong man, and my friend", looks to the presidential visit mainly as a tool in his political survival game, in anticipation of the Winograd report due on January 30. While showing remarkable political skill in running the country, Olmert's performance vis-a-vis the Palestinians has been humble.
Facing strong opposition from Israel's defense organs, Olmert has failed to implement goodwill gestures to ease the economic hardships of the West Bank Palestinians. His promises to remove illegal outposts, as mandated by the roadmap, are not taken seriously. And only when Israel was caught red-handed in approving another housing project in Har Homa in the midst of negotiations did Olmert announce his intention to strengthen his personal oversight over settlement construction. Clearly, the Israeli bureaucracy was oblivious to the new winds of peace. And that's before the explosive issues like Jerusalem and refugees, which threaten to implode Olmert's coalition, were even discussed.
Given these circumstances, it is highly doubtful that Bush can negotiate the blueprint for an independent Palestine. A more realistic expectation can be to preserve Abbas and his supporters in power, at least pro forma, and mitigate Israel's domestic crisis by giving Olmert a political raison d'etre for the coming year. Keeping moderates in power is important in itself, but progress beyond that will probably have to wait for the next tenant in the White House.- Published 7/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of Haaretz
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