Despite the Israeli government’s blatant attempt to undermine the visit of United States Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region and Israel/Palestine, this visit marks a significant renewal of American diplomatic efforts to replace the ongoing violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis with peaceful negotiations. Israel has already aborted that American initiative in different ways, but primarily through its official declaration that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will discuss the roadmap and offer Israel’s position at his meeting with US President George W. Bush on May 20. That leaves Colin Powell and his visit hanging in mid-air. Without Israeli acceptance of the roadmap and willingness to begin implementation, the exercise of Colin Powell’s trip to launch the plan’s implementation has become meaningless.
That is, of course, in addition to the extraordinary Israeli escalation of pressure on Palestinians, which seems to be aimed at inviting violent Palestinian reactions. At this opening for peace, Israel has increased its military operations and ended up killing more Palestinians; tightened the closure on Palestinian towns and villages that is daily damaging the internal infrastructure; and continued and escalated illegal settlement expansion and confiscation of Palestinian land through the project of the separation/apartheid wall. Palestinians cannot be convinced that Israel is ready to abandon its occupation when all they see around them is the occupation’s physical consolidation.
The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has been trying to act positively towards this American-proposed plan that was accepted as the Quartet roadmap. At the same time, the Palestinians have been repeatedly explaining that this roadmap will have a chance of success and implementation only if Israel accepts it with no conditions or changes, and expresses willingness to begin serious implementation as per each side’s obligations.
Thus, if this visit of Colin Powell were to mark the beginning of comprehensive American involvement and renewal of peace efforts, then it might be a positive sign. However, if Israeli stalling and other tactics of avoiding engagement over this document succeed in frustrating American Middle East diplomacy, then it is likely that the coming period until after the US elections will witness a continuity--if not an increase--in the violence and suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis.
The irony here is that while the Americans are dealing with the Middle East as integral to their foreign policy, Israel is dealing with US Middle East involvement as if it is a game of internal American politics. Even though the Americans have sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, Israel has dodged real engagement with him and is dealing instead with US official Elliot Abrams in secret meetings before Powell’s arrival, and conferring with White House officials after Colin Powell leaves. All the while, Israel is influencing US policies in the region by lobbying the US Congress to pressure the Bush administration by signing petitions that will discourage it from moving forward with the roadmap. Perhaps this meddling explains why even President Bush, while giving a key May 9 address on the Middle East, could not bring himself to utter the name of the roadmap.
Ghassan Khatib is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet. He has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
Back in the autumn of 2002, a senior Arab diplomat told me confidently that United States President George W. Bush had made a solemn commitment to the moderate Arab states: after the war in Iraq, and on condition that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is pushed aside in favor of a Palestinian whose hands are not tainted by terrorism, the US will deliver on a peace process, as encompassed in the roadmap, even if this means exercising pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make concessions.
Washington's Middle East stance has been radically transformed since then. The US has conquered Iraq and served notice on Syria. It is withdrawing its military from Saudi Arabia and offering the region a free trade arrangement. And it has delivered the roadmap. Senior administration officials proclaim that the strategic circumstances have been altered, and that the president is now genuinely committed to implementing a two state solution, provided that Arafat is out and Palestinian terrorism ends.
The president's logic last autumn was based on the assumption that the conquest and long-term occupation of Iraq would make life extremely uncomfortable for moderate local regimes. Hence the need to compensate them; Washington believed it could balance the negative effects of the US presence by energizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
During the course of the countdown to war in Iraq a new incentive was added, when the administration pointedly committed to the roadmap as a means of bolstering leaders like Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair whose assistance to the US in Iraq was unpopular at home. Finally, Bush has emerged from the conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq with his prestige and popularity so high, that he can afford to risk a little of it on a dangerous but important venture.
But keep in mind the president's key condition: no Arafat. Even before Israelis elected Ariel Sharon back in early 2001, Bush's incoming administration had registered its refusal to repeat what it perceived to be a major mistake made by President Clinton: risking US prestige in trying to do a deal with a Palestinian leader who could not be relied on to keep agreements and to cease supporting terrorist violence.
Thus assuming the administration really is committed to making the roadmap work, the Arafat factor is by definition one major potential cause for a possible decision, when the going gets rough, to back off from the kind of messy involvement that will be required. Palestinians may argue that the policies of PM Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are really not different from those of Arafat. And the other three members of the Quartet can make a powerful case in favor of working with both Arafat and Abu Mazen. But in American (and Israeli) eyes these are two very different leaders: one supports terrorist violence through cunning and manipulation of funds; the other does not. One is not credible; the other is.
The second potential cause for a possible administration decision to reconsider is US domestic politics. Bush wants to win reelection in November 2004 and to help reelect a Republican Congress. He has to be considerate of the views of his constituents regarding an Israeli-Palestinian compromise process. Two vital groups of Americans upon whom he is depending for votes and campaign contributions and whose leaders for the most part support a very pro-Israel and anti-Arab position are the evangelical Christians and much of the organized Jewish community. That they have begun to make common cause against those in Washington who would pressure Israel over its disastrous settlements policy is a disturbing development in American Jewish politics.
The Christian right is likely to stick with Bush no matter what he does in the Middle East, because it has no alternative: it won't switch its votes to the Democrats, who support abortion rights, separation of church and state and other positions the evangelicals consider abominations.
The American Jewish community, on the other hand, has an alternative. In fact it is liberal on Israeli issues and traditionally votes Democrat. But its leaders always support the positions of the serving government of Israel. This gives PM Sharon a vital additional lever of influence over the administration's policies regarding Israel; he is adept at using it.
In the aftermath of Iraq, Bush leads in the opinion polls by a huge margin, and elections are 18 months away. He can for the moment ignore the protests of Jewish and evangelical leaders. He could even risk staring down Sharon regarding some of the latter's initial roadmap obligations. This gives the interested parties a vital window of opportunity. The other Quartet members should recognize that keeping Washington committed to the process for as long as possible is more important than their activities in Ramallah and Jerusalem.
But the window is almost certain to close in six or at most ten months, when Bush's domestic advisers sit him down and tell him that he needs to win Florida fair and square this time, hence needs the Jewish vote and evangelical money there, and that in order to get them he should avoid pressuring Sharon, even if this means abandoning the roadmap until after elections.
Yossi Alpher is former Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former Senior Adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
bitterlemons: Yesterday, you and other civil society leaders met with United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Can you describe what was discussed?
Kamal: First, Mr. Powell gave a statement about the American position on the roadmap, trying to give us confidence that the Americans are willing to work towards this since the Iraqi war. They are pleased with the appointment of [Palestinian Prime Minister] Abu Mazen and other things related to the roadmap, but there are still things that remain to be done: in his words, “uprooting terrorism.”
He also said that that they asked the Israelis to implement their part, to relieve the difficult conditions that Palestinians are suffering under.
bitterlemons: What about the Palestinian response?
Kamal: For our part, we tried to express the difficulties of the roadmap versus people’s expectations that this time things might go forward. There were several maps given to him, one showing Israeli settlements and how they are dividing the country and depriving Palestinians of their right to build a state that has continuity. The settlements, in fact, are putting a final status agreement at risk and our fear is that the transitional state that is part of the second phase of the roadmap will also putting the final status at risk. The Israelis might use this as a defacto final status, as was done during the Oslo accords.
Also, there was another map that showed that settlements and bypass roads [connecting the settlements] give continuity to the Israeli state and integrate the settlements into Israel, which also threatens the final negotiations. Another map on settlements showed that there are some "political settlements" that might be dismantled in the first phase [of the roadmap]. There are only 14,000 Israeli settlers living there, but this would make a big difference [for us].
We worry about the relationship between democracy, and supporters of peace who believe that Abu Mazen can deliver something. If their expectations are not met, then they will be frustrated and believe there is no future, which puts the peace process in danger.
bitterlemons: How did you feel these comments were received?
Kamal: He didn’t talk very much; he was mostly listening.
Personally, as I read the roadmap and compare it with the different experiences that we have had--starting with Oslo, then the Wye River Accords, and all these agreements, I feel that Palestinians are always getting less than we had before. Palestinians always have to lower their expectations. Who will be monitoring this situation? The partners are not on equal ground.
bitterlemons: If you feel that the roadmap is just one more concession by the Palestinians, do you think that Palestinians have any other choice other than to work with it?
Kamal: No. We are not rejecting the roadmap, but I cannot say that we are accepting it as it is. If the roadmap is going to end the conflict, there are some things that should be discussed. We have to look at the implications of the establishment of the state of Israel on the Palestinians. Just one of these implications was the creation of the refugee problem. How can that be solved?
The people as a whole, as well as individuals, have a right to decide what they want to do about this. If we take look at it from a perspective of peace, then it is easy to solve the refugee problem without endangering the state of Israel. Israel has to accept the right of return, but the modalities of the right of return can be discussed. Palestinians are still living as refugees, not only outside historic Palestine, but there are also 22 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. These people live in misery.
How can we solve that problem, and that of the refugees in Jordan and Lebanon and Syria? For 60 years, many of these people have been living without citizenship and without rights.
Zahira Kamal is a member of the political office of the Palestine Democratic Union (FIDA).
It appears as if the Bush administration has finally reached its moment of decision on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the wake of the American triumph in Iraq, the conflict in the Holy Land has been repositioned as problem number one for Washington’s foreign policy. But will President George W. Bush rise to the challenge and prove his determination and toughness on the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire, or will he make do with the lower intensity “conflict management” that he has adopted until now?
On the surface, all the ingredients are there for a courageous diplomatic effort to stop the bloodshed and push Israelis and Palestinians toward a renewed peace process. There are high expectations for change from the two conflicted societies, fatigued after over 30 months of continuous violence. There are political debts to pay to America’s allies in the Arab world and London, who supported and participated in the removal of Saddam Hussein and begged Washington to deal with the Palestine issue. There are the prime ministers in Jerusalem and Ramallah, who pledge their commitment to peacemaking. And unlike in Iraq, where the United States encountered strong opposition from many countries to its planned regime change, there are no real opponents to the Bush vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, security and prosperity. Regional extremists are at their low point, and the rest of the world follows the American lead.
All these factors are well recognized in Washington and throughout the Middle East. At this point, however, the Bush administration prefers not to take the plunge, but rather to remain on the safe side of diplomatic daring. Its policy formula could be termed “semblance of intervention” or “safe-side engagement.” It looks like the real thing, with presidential speeches, an internationally accepted peace plan (the roadmap), and high-level trips to the region. But so far, it has stopped short of moving Israelis and Palestinians beyond empty gestures.
The model of post-Iraq American intervention is not new. It was invented by the elder Bush administration in 1991, when the United States used its coincidental victories in the Gulf War and the Cold War to drag Arabs and Israelis to the Madrid Peace Conference, which launched a first-ever direct peace process. Madrid and the ensuing negotiations, from Oslo to Camp David, have not ended the conflict. Yet they brought about a decade of relative calm and better stability in the region, and managed to delimit the areas of dispute between Israel and its two adversary neighbors, Syria and the Palestinians, so that the blueprint for any future settlement is on the table.
The younger Bush administration refrains from grand gestures and prefers to move the process in a “bottom-up” manner--starting from mutual small steps, which are supposed to lead to larger steps, until both Israelis and Palestinians restore their shattered confidence and are ready to discuss the tough issues. This approach is presumably tailored to the absorptive capacity of the rival leaderships, as it delays their tough political struggles at home. However it carries a great risk of disruption, since any progress is measured in inches at best. Thus the public can hardly feel the movement, while adversaries of peace, or stubborn leaders, are able to derail the process with relatively little effort. At the same time, the responsibility for any failure lies with the quarreling duo, while the Americans can walk away unharmed.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem last Saturday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to avoid friction and conflict and emphasized agreement on the need to start implementing the roadmap. He called upon the Palestinians to uproot terrorism and the Israelis to ease the Palestinians’ humanitarian and economic hardships. The larger issues discussed in the roadmap--which sets a three-stage, three-year plan to establish a Palestinian state and solve outstanding disputes--were shelved for the time being.
One can argue that Powell has no real choice, as he faces two difficult interlocutors. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is all but committed to peacemaking and “painful concessions,” but only in the far future; right now, his gestures are timid, as he demands changes in the roadmap and seeks to avoid political trials at home. His record puts his sincerity in doubt: he has thus far successfully blocked any peace plan during his term. His government has avoided any real move to restrain settlement growth in the West Bank and Gaza, despite its repeated half-hearted pledges to do so. Israelis feel they are winning the war, and this is not a good recipe for compromise. And last but definitely not least, Bush’s perceived support for Israel helps him win crucial Jewish votes and contributions as he readies himself for his reelection campaign.
On the other side, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) still lacks serious authority; he could not even host Powell in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, for fear of the shadow of his leader Yassir Arafat. It is doubtful whether Abu Mazen will be able to rein in the terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza and fulfill Sharon’s tough demand for “100 percent effort” on security. Moreover, craving legitimacy, Abu Mazen will have great difficulty compromising with Israel.
Given these hurdles, no wonder Powell and his master in Washington are reluctant to take big risks. But their cautious approach may deliver a stillborn vision. Bush has proven his ability to take considerable diplomatic and even military risks--on missile defense, transatlantic relations and Iraq, to name a few--but he appears to lack this determination on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. While solidifying America’s commitment to the two-state solution as none of his predecessors ever did, Bush has refrained from expending serious political capital to implement that vision. His prudence may strengthen the forces on both sides that only want to prolong the status quo.
Aluf Ben is diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz daily newspaper.
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