There are many reasons why American intervention is inevitable in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All over the world, United States’ dominance and attempts to influence developments in its favor mean an involved US actor. But in this conflict in particular, one party--i.e. Israel--has always depended on the United States for aspects of its economic, political and military survival. Nor is that influence straightforward. There is a unique relationship between Israel and the United States, whereby attitudes towards Israel are shaped both in the arena of United States foreign policy and as a result of internal political wrangling, due to the many friends of Israel and the strong Jewish lobby inside the United States government.
There are American interests to protect on the other side of the conflict, i.e. in the Arab world. These include oil, strategic geographic positioning and the cultivation of allies. But the difference in impact between these US interests and those on the Israeli side is that the Arabs in general have not been active in using US regional interests to their political favor, at least towards a just resolution of the Middle East conflict. This is no coincidence, but largely a result of the absence of democracy in the Arab world. The practices of most Arab regimes do not necessarily reflect their publics’ interest, which in turn helps explain the ongoing American support for non-democratic regimes in this part of the world: for the US to question those regimes would open a Pandora’s box of new demands on US foreign policy.
Recent years, which include several attempts to establish a peace process beginning with the 1991 Madrid peace conference, demonstrate that only United States’ involvement allows negotiations to progress. By the same token, it can be argued that at every turn the limited nature of the American intervention has been at least partially responsible for subsequent failures.
Palestinians were encouraged by the establishment of the Quartet, made up of United States, United Nations, European Union and Russian representation, simply because they believed it might reduce the American monopoly over the peace process, which has yet to be productive because US Middle East policy is not sensitive enough to the conflict’s framework of international law. But we have just witnessed one more example of the dire need for American interference, in this case an intervention that arrived despite all pessimistic predictions. Many analysts argue that the US intervened only after Israel failed in using a US-proffered window of opportunity to end the confrontations using force. The consequence of this failure was to be added pressure on Israel to accept the roadmap and come to the negotiating table.
The subsequent failure of the American intervention in Aqaba to press Israel to fulfill only the very first step of roadmap implementation, therefore, is an illustration of historic American diplomatic shortcomings. The text of the roadmap stipulates that implementation be initiated via simultaneous statements from each side, each party recognizing the other, committing to stop violence against the other, and also committing to the implementation of the roadmap. While the United States did everything in its power to make sure that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas would include these elements and more in his statement, they did not ensure the same of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he welcomed the opportunity "to renew direct negotiations according to the steps of the road map as adopted by the Israeli Government to achieve [the Bush] vision." This legalistic formula falls short of accepting the roadmap outright. Sharon also failed to say that Israel would stop violence against Palestinians wherever they are, as the roadmap required, and also did not offer clear recognition of a Palestinian state. It was perfectly consistent for Israel, then, the very next day to resume the use of violence as it killed two Palestinian men and injured a third in an attempt to assassinate them all. Further, Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement, which are an immense psychological barrier towards negotiations for the general population, are now worse than ever before.
The position of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has been deeply weakened, then, since he promised his constituency that Palestinian commitments to Israel would be matched by an end to Israeli violence, the dismantling of certain settlements and a halt to construction in others, as well as the lifting of the insufferable roadblocks. By not bringing Israel to the table, the United States has once again shot itself in the foot.
Ghassan Khatib is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet. He has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
The careful American scripting of the dramatic statements made at Aqaba last week by prime ministers Sharon and Abbas, coupled with President Bush's own firmly worded commitment, point to Washington's newfound determination to deal energetically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush, in particular, has in the course of the past month exhibited an emotional commitment to the cause of Middle East peace that is difficult to explain without reference to the president's deep felt religious beliefs.
Many Middle East actors appear to be inspired by strong religious beliefs. Many exercise negative influence--for example, the Islamic extremists in Iran, the Islamist terrorist organizations, the American Christian evangelicals who support the Israeli settlement movement, and the religious settlers themselves. When Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat recently incited Palestinian children to grow up to be martyrs, he too was, not for the first time, imposing extremist Islamist beliefs on the conflict. On the other hand, religious extremists are not the only negative actors in the region: witness the legacy of the secular Bathists in Iraq and Syria.
Still, it is not often that an American president tells an Arab leader, as President Bush did last summer, that in pursuing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein he has "a mission from God." Now Bush appears to address the challenge of providing freedom and democracy for the Palestinian people in somewhat similar religious ideological terms. There is also a personal angle: after Iraq the American president appears to have greater self-assurance and confidence in his international role.
But there are also some hardheaded calculations of realpolitik behind the Bush administration's newfound devotion to the roadmap and its putative end product.
The first consideration is Iraq. Assessments may differ as to Washington's chances of making good on its promise to democratize Iraq. But as long as the US is there--whether bogged down in internecine fighting, terrorism and meddling by neighbors, or on the road to stabilizing the country--it appears to have concluded that it must demonstrate active involvement on the Israeli-Palestinian front in order to deflect Arab criticism and buy regional good will.
A second consideration is global. The administration's war in Iraq split the Atlantic alliance and undermined the position of traditional allies like England and Turkey, where public opinion faulted governmental inclinations to join with the US. A concerted effort at peacemaking in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere answers the need to make amends.
A third consideration is domestic. Private inside polling by the Republicans indicates that the American public will support involvement by Bush, at least up to a point. The American public has little patience with Israeli settlements and wants Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to take peace initiatives. Some sectors of the American Jewish mainstream have begun to express open disagreement with the hard line evinced by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents. Bush, who told that same Arab leader last summer that he had little to risk in getting involved with the Palestinian issue since he gained only nine percent of the Jewish vote in 2000 and could hardly do worse next time, may conceivably now perceive an opportunity to increase his popularity with Jewish voters.
Finally this was, after all, "the plan." Key administration thinkers like Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice long intended to exploit the victory in Iraq to try to end the Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting. Nor, despite all the rhetoric about being "with us or against us," could the administration ignore the need to win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim world in the post-9/11 era.
Yet the president's newfound enthusiasm for this enterprise is almost certain to be constrained by heavy counter-considerations. Bush's Middle East campaign could easily be shelved if Abbas proves unable to grasp the initiative and lead a successful campaign against Palestinian violence; if Sharon balks at dismantling and freezing settlements and/or if pressure on him precipitates an Israeli governmental and electoral crisis; if regional Arab leaders prove less than forthcoming in rewarding Israel for concessions by expanding relations; and when--not if--the American presidential elections gear up to a point where pressure on Sharon, or merely the threat of failure, forces Bush to give priority to his next Florida campaign.
Bush clearly lacks what might be called a "sophisticated" grasp of the Israel-Arab conflict--indeed, of world affairs in general. Some might argue that a president who is on a mission from God and who can't pronounce "contiguous" has no business messing with the Palestinian issue. On the other hand, President Clinton's grasp of the minutiae of the conflict was also no guarantee of success. Ronald Reagan, whose wife believed in astrology, helped bring down the "Evil Empire" and end the Cold War with a simplicity of approach and single-minded determination reminiscent of Bush.
The nature of the leadership on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides remains even more problematic. Abu Mazen's heart is in the right place, but he has little public support and is constrained by extremists from Arafat to Hamas. Sharon, in the best case, is not really committed to the kind of final status territorial settlement that Abu Mazen, and apparently Bush, champion. Hence the single most important contribution that can now be made by friends of Middle East peace--the rest of the Quartet, the moderate Arab states, American Jewish leaders--is to keep Bush in the game.
Yossi Alpher was director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and was a senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
As if Palestinians are occupying Israeli land
an interview with Zakaria Al Agha
bitterlemons: As someone who has observed United States involvement from the 1991 Madrid conference till now, how would you assess its role?
Al Agha: I don’t really see any important change from Madrid to Aqaba, despite that American policy under President George W. Bush has been far less involved than that under the administrations of presidents Clinton and Bush Sr. Perhaps over the last few weeks there has been some activation of the American role, but we have yet to feel any progress on the ground. To date, American policy from this administration still supports the Israeli point of view accusing Palestinians of being “terrorists” and accusing this struggle against occupation of being “terrorist”, all of which negates the United Nations charter giving people under occupation the right to struggle against that occupation.
Despite the many years of occupation--now exceeding 36 years--there have been no effective measures implementing United Nations Resolutions 338, 242 and 1397, as well as others related to the Palestinian problem. Indeed, we hope that this new activity of the Americans will be translated into a real vision on the ground and real progress in terms of pressuring the Israeli government to take measures to end the military occupation of the Palestinian territories, while first stopping Israeli aggression and settlement activities in those territories.
bitterlemons: Can you name some positive contributions that the United States has made in the history of the conflict?
Al Agha: During Madrid and after, there was hope among Palestinians that the Americans would adopt an effective role. After President Bush’s initiative in 1991 and the measures he took against Mr. Shamir at that time, we expected positive things. [Ed.’s note: George Bush Sr. withheld US loan guarantees until Israel agreed in part to stop some settlement construction.] We were also impressed by Mr. Clinton’s active role and active sharing in solving the problem by receiving Mr. Arafat in the White House several times and visiting Palestine, but we were shocked after Mr. Bush came to office. He denied Palestinians the right to their elected president and banned President Arafat, thereby interfering with internal Palestinian affairs.
This negatively affected the Palestinian people, who felt that the Americans were following the lead of the Israelis--as if Palestinians were occupying Israeli land. Frankly, there is now mistrust between the Palestinian people and the American administration, but we hope that the American administration will take steps to restore trust. There must be good trust between the two sides.
bitterlemons: What was your opinion of Prime Minister Abbas’ speech in Aqaba?
Al Agha: The truth is that Mr. Abbas’ statement was cause for criticism from the Palestinian people. Bush asked each leader to state his commitment towards the other side, but Mr. Sharon did not do this. It seemed to our people that Mr. Abbas was being pressured by the Americans and the Israelis, while Mr. Sharon was not. This was what made our people angry with this speech.
Maybe they expected Mr. Abbas to give a strong statement similar to that of Sharon, but because Mr. Abbas was addressing the Americans, international opinion and Israeli opinion, he forgot the opinion of his people. Sharon, on the other hand, first addressed his people. But this imbalance in the statements demonstrates once again that Mr. Abbas is sincere in his commitment to the roadmap, while Mr. Sharon is not.
bitterlemons: Do you think that the roadmap has failed?
Al Agha: I can’t say that, but I think it is in danger. I think Sharon and his friends are not sincere, but that the Americans can still make this roadmap succeed if they pressure the Israeli side. They have convinced Mr. Abbas, and even though his statement made problems among Palestinians, he remains committed to this process. Now the American role is to pressure Sharon.
Zakaria Al Agha is a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and sits on the Central Committee of the mainstream Palestinian faction, Fatah.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
The 2003 Gulf War: a turning point in American strategy?
by Abraham Ben-Zvi
The history of American foreign and defense policy since the beginning of the twentieth century comprises dramatic shifts between phases of intensive involvement in the international arena, and periods of relative or complete disengagement from the outside world. The intense involvement phase originates in a desire to reshape the external environment on the basis of new premises; the disengagement phase is characterized by the absence of any effort to influence developments abroad, as in the period between the two world wars.
United States President Woodrow Wilson sought to build a new world order on the basis of his "Fourteen Points," and viewed American entry into World War I as the necessary springboard for promoting his sweeping political, ideological and territorial vision. But the administrations which followed his presidency largely avoided such a sweeping definition of the changes required in the domestic structure and modus operandi of the national units comprising this system. At the outset of the Cold War several American leaders, such as John Foster Dulles, who served as secretary of state in President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration between 1953-1959, did occasionally allude to the need to roll the Soviet empire back from Eastern Europe. But their actual policy was largely rooted in the defensive premises of containment, deterrence and coercion.
An examination of the first eight months of George W. Bush’s tenure as president indicates that they were predicated upon these traditional principles of containment and deterrence. The Bush foreign and defense policy elites were initially predisposed to pursue a unilateralist, largely exclusionist posture. They sought to minimize the risk of military entanglements in third-world areas, and instead to rely upon the tools of deterrence and coercive diplomacy in confronting threats to American security, including in the Iraqi context.
Indeed, during the period which preceded the September 11 attacks, the neo-conservative belief that American foreign policy should be prepared, in confronting national security threats, to take the initiative rather than merely to react, and thus in the absence of broad international support to unilaterally launch preventive strikes by using American military hegemony to destroy the forces of international terrorism, amounted to nothing more than an intellectual platform. Notwithstanding the fact that the neo-conservative agenda came to increasingly permeate and shape the thinking of policymakers like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and defense planners and analysts at the Pentagon during the last decade, it was only in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 that it was translated into an official and operational guide for action.
Thus by virtue of its magnitude and impact upon American strategic thinking, the tragedy of September 11 can be viewed as a formative traumatic event which precipitated a change in the traditional modus operandi of American foreign policy. From the conservative pole of defending the status quo that policy moved to the revisionist extreme of seeking to transform the entire international system so that it would conform with American ideas, values and institutions. The Iraqi campaign was the first step in this direction.
It is against the backdrop of this sweeping neo-conservative doctrine that the recent American preoccupation with the Palestinian issue, most clearly manifested in the Sharm al-Sheikh and Aqaba summits, should be viewed. This doctrine envisions a direct linkage between the Iraqi campaign and the subsequent transformation in the structure of other regional social and political systems. Thus it was only natural for President Bush to look for regional windows of opportunity for progress along the route toward the Wilsonian goal of democracy. It is at this juncture that the roadmap of the Quartet, combined with the election of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as the Palestinian prime minister, became the main springboard for the administration in its effort to translate its strategic and ideological thinking into a new regional reality.
The president brought to this effort new leverage as an undisputed hegemon. He had recently comprehensively demonstrated, in Iraq, his readiness to use force to combat the threat inherent in rogue states and in international terrorism, as the means of laying the groundwork for a new--and democratic--regional environment. While his initial effort in the Israeli-Palestinian context may appear successful in the immediate aftermath of the Aqaba summit, this does not guarantee, of course, that the roadmap will be smoothly implemented. With the parties still separated by irreconcilable views concerning core issues, and with the president about to become increasingly preoccupied with the requirements of the 2004 presidential campaign, the road toward reconciliation may still be long and rocky, particularly as the shadow of terrorism looms as a constant threat to the entire process.
Abraham Ben-Zvi is professor of political science and head of the Security Studies Program at Tel Aviv University and a senior research associate at the university’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
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