The most striking aspect of current Bush administration policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict is a sharp contradiction. On the one hand, pressures are being brought to bear on the administration from some quarters in the US and from the Arab world to get more energetically involved. But on the other, the administration has a long list of reasons--some might say excuses--not to do so.
The common denominator connecting these two sides of the issue is the United States' unprecedented involvement elsewhere in the region. The administration apparently believes that Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Arab democratic reform are of much higher priority than Israel-Palestine and can be dealt with effectively while paying little more than hyped-up lip service to the latter conflict. In any case, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is deemed unsolvable under present circumstances and not worth risking American diplomatic and other resources on. Most of the involved American Jewish community, the American public-at-large and Congress tend to acquiesce in this stance, if not actively support it, even as they attack Bush over his Iraq policies.
In contrast, a sector of the administration's increasingly vocal critics--from Baker-Hamilton to Jimmy Carter, backed by Arab opinion--argues that Bush's priorities are skewed, and that he will make little progress dealing with the other conflicts unless and until he gets really deeply involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They point out that, one way or another, Bush needs the moderate Arabs and the Europeans if he is to deal effectively with Iraq and Iran. And the Arabs and Europeans, justifiably or not, want to see progress in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere.
Both sides to this controversy accept the need for the dramatic escalation in US involvement in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and in view of Iran's increasingly threatening posture. Many observers of Washington politics would add, based on considerable experience, that in any case no US administration is capable of managing or seeking to solve more than one prolonged Middle East crisis at a time. The Clinton administration had the luxury of dealing almost exclusively with the Israel-Arab peace process. Bush, bogged down in Iraq, has willingly internationalized the treatment of Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan and seems recently to have downgraded his democratic reform efforts, which in any case have proven largely counter-productive, precisely because of administration overload in the region.
The attempt to synthesize the two approaches finds its most overt expression in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trips to the Middle East. She usually stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah for no more than a day. She pays homage to the abortive and anachronistic roadmap and the Quartet, admonishes Israeli and Palestinian leaders to do better, then moves on to the rest of the Arab world where her heavier missions lie and where she dutifully promises to devote more administration energies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (this is the first US administration declaratively opposed to an Israeli-Syrian process).
Now, under growing pressure, Bush and Rice apparently seek to generate enough additional Israeli-Palestinian movement so as to provide "cover" for increased US-Israeli-Sunni Arab cooperation against Iran and its allies and proxies. Hence Rice doubled her efforts: she stayed in Jerusalem and Ramallah for two days instead of one. And she has scheduled a trilateral meeting with Olmert and Abbas in around a month to discuss informally the parameters of a two-state solution--as if the Israeli and Palestinian leaders couldn't meet on their own tomorrow in Jerusalem--while the US continues to beef up Fateh security capabilities against Iran-supported Hamas, and argue against a Palestinian unity government.
Nothing spectacular is likely to emerge from these feeble efforts. The Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian "street" won't be fooled by them, and in any case America's ongoing Iraq strategy is liable to strengthen Iran far more than its new regional strategy will weaken it.
Should Israelis who seek a more active peace process be concerned? Would Rice have a serious chance to move Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward resolution or even better management of their conflict if she were to announce an open-ended shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah and, in the best tradition of her Republican predecessors Henry Kissinger and James Baker, twist the arms of Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas until they cry "uncle" and begin making and enforcing concessions and creating a positive new momentum?
Pessimists would reply that Olmert and Abbas are both far too weak, Israel is too preoccupied with the aftermath of the Lebanon war and Palestine too anarchic. Better to suffice with modest conflict management than to fail again at conflict resolution. Optimists would counter that both the Israeli and Palestinian publics seek and support movement, the parameters of a settlement are clear as is the need for genuine progress in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, and we'll never know what steps American presidential pressures and inducements might extract from the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships unless Washington tries.
They are both missing the point. After six years, before and after 9/11, the Bush/Rice pattern of (not) dealing with this conflict should be clear. Anyone expecting or hoping for a genuinely active American role will have to wait at least two more years. And anyone seeking meaningful third party intervention in the conflict has to acknowledge that only the US--not Europe and not Israel's friendly Arab neighbors who hold out the promise of rapprochement under the 2002 Saudi/Arab League plan--can muster sufficient involvement to make a difference.
"Another year, another Rice tour of the Middle East", noted Talal Awkal in the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam with a near-audible sigh. He spoke not only for Palestinians.
- Published 22/1/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Whether she was serious or not, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at least managed to create the impression of seriousness on her last trip to the region. After roughly six years of total American abandonment, the US administration seems to be trying hard to convince the parties to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and their publics that there is change.
Many Palestinians and Arabs, and indeed some Israelis, blame this abandonment for the unprecedented deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations over the past years. After a quarter of a century of attempts, it can be observed that Palestinian-Israeli relations always deteriorate when left to their own devices. The only way to prevent this or make any progress is through third party intervention.
The "good" years, relatively speaking, from a peace-building perspective were the years between 1990 to 2000, and were a result of the heavy involvement first of George Bush senior and his secretary of state James Baker, and then the third party efforts of Norway and the Clinton administration.
Thus, the new attitude evinced by Rice is cause for some optimism. The question is how to make use of that new attitude and how to make it work. For this, we must look at the lessons we have learned from previous efforts when the US and others invested heavily to bring a resolution to the conflict but failed.
One of the most important conclusions that can be drawn from previous experience is that while efforts are undertaken on a political level there must be an absolute ban on any kind of unilateral activity to create facts on the ground that will prejudice the final outcome of negotiations.
There are two ways to do that. One would be to start by fixing the end result of the process, i.e., to agree officially that the solution is two states on the basis of 1967 borders. Such an approach would reduce the tension between the two sides that we have witnessed in previous efforts and neutralize the time factor, which was previously used by one party against the other. Many parties have recently advocated this approach, especially on the Arab side as witnessed by the Arab Initiative.
The second way is a to cement a clear agreement on freezing all kinds of Israeli practices in the occupied territories that aim to consolidate the occupation and violate the political, national and human rights of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories, especially the settlement expansion process. If there was one single factor that above all else contributed to the failure of the peace process it was the settlements.
Another major conclusion to be drawn from previous experience is the need for a neutral third party mediator. One of the main defects of previous peace efforts has been the almost instinctual American bias in favor of Israel. This bias must end, especially on issues where international law is compromised as a result. In the Washington negotiations, where the US was sponsor and mediator, there were major differences in the two parties' negotiating positions. The Palestinian position was clearly and intentionally based on the stipulations of international law on issues such as the jurisdiction of the Palestinian interim authority, the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in the occupied territories and the need to stop illegal Israeli settlement expansions on territory whose future was the subject of the negotiations. On all these issues, unfortunately, the mediator was only too willing to compromise international law in favor of Israel.
And maybe, before all of the above details, the US has to understand that there are basic conceptual differences between the two sides over what constitutes the required compromise. The starting point from the Israeli perspective is that negotiations are about the future of disputed territory and hence that territory is up for compromise. The Palestinian perspective is that the conflict did not start in 1967 when the territories in question were occupied, but in 1948. And since Palestinians have basic rights not only in the 1967 territories but also in the rest of historic Palestine, ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders is the compromise.
Another reason for caution from a Palestinian perspective regarding this apparent new American interest in the conflict is the linkage with other regional conflicts, especially Iraq. Although Palestinians, like everybody else, understand the impact of the continuing injustice against Palestinians on American policy in the wider Middle East, especially in terms of credibility vis-a-vis the Arab "street", it has to be understood that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict stands on its own and should be resolved because it needs to be resolved. It should not simply be used as a means to improve the image of the US in the wider region and consequently facilitate American policy there.- Published 22/1/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
A better regional atmosphere
by Aluf Benn
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah was different from her eight previous trips to Israel and the PA in her current job. This time, Rice announced a deeper American involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, a notable departure from the erstwhile hands-off policy of the Bush administration. Moreover, Rice appeared ready to explore new initiatives in Middle East diplomacy; she told her interlocutors that she intends to return every six weeks to baby-sit talks between Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Wrapping up her tour, the secretary spoke about a "very positive development" in opening informal talks between Abbas and Olmert, and once again pledged to "do whatever I can do to try to help establish a Palestinian state".
At face value, there are compelling reasons for the declared change in American policy and for Rice's optimism. First and foremost, Israeli-Palestinian violence is at one of its lowest points since September 2000. The shaky ceasefire in Gaza appears somehow to be holding despite ongoing Qassam rocket attacks into Israel. Second, Olmert and Abbas are publicly committed to negotiating a two-state solution and share better personal chemistry than their predecessors.
Third, there is growing domestic pressure on Rice and the administration--from the media, from the new Democratic rulers of Congress and from the Baker-Hamilton commission--to shift gears on the peace process. And fourth, aligning the moderate Arab regimes against the looming Iranian threat entails "doing something" on the Palestinian issue--a requirement understood by Israel. Recognizing these developments, Rice argues that circumstances are better now for peacemaking than they were during the failed Camp David summit of 2000.
Rice's high spirits notwithstanding, there is little she can hope for beyond helping to improve the regional atmosphere and laying the ground for future negotiations. While important in and of themselves, these goals fall far short of a serious attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The main stumbling block for meaningful negotiations is the political weakness of the parties. Olmert is the least popular leader in Israel in recent history and faces sharp criticism for the blunders of the second Lebanon war and criminal investigation for alleged corruption. His stable coalition with right-winger Avigdor Lieberman keeps Olmert on the job, while tying his hands vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Abbas' authority was devastatingly weakened by the success of Hamas in last year's elections. Subsequently, Fateh and Hamas entered into an increasingly violent power struggle and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal became the final arbiter on PA matters. As a result, it is unrealistic to imagine either Olmert or Abbas making the necessary compromises to reach an agreement, let alone implementing one. They have yet to conclude even a prisoner exchange deal, pending approval by Hamas.
Moreover, despite mutual declarations supporting the two-state solution, both sides have very different interpretations of the concept. Olmert's suggestion of withdrawal to the security barrier line while delaying discussion about the future of Jerusalem and the refugees is way below the minimum acceptable to Palestinians. Abbas opposes any interim deals and insists on negotiating final status. This is anathema to the Israeli side, which fears touching the most sensitive issues.
Climbing down the rhetorical ladder, Rice made clear that negotiating final status is currently unrealistic. Instead, she focused on removing a procedural stumbling block: Israel's insistence on adhering to the roadmap "sequence", interpreted as putting negotiations on hold until the Palestinians eradicate terror. Rice and Tzipi Livni, her Israeli counterpart, developed a plan for separating talk from action. Let both sides draw the contours of the future Palestinian state, while holding off on implementation according to the roadmap phases. Rice said she sold the idea to a reluctant Olmert, who had previously opposed it, as the basis for next month's trilateral Olmert-Abbas-Rice summit.
To ordinary Israelis, these formulas seem like diplomatic blabber--something to let diplomats and foreign ministers chew on, but with little influence over or relevance to events on the ground. As long as there is no credible military or political response to the rocket fire, a deep West Bank withdrawal--the ultimate precondition to any long-term settlement--is off the table.
Olmert and Abbas must recover from their political dilemmas if they are ever seriously to move forward. Nevertheless, Rice's new effort may help them to prepare the ground for future negotiations, implement confidence-building measures and, most importantly, prevent another escalation. Under American stewardship, it has been easier for Olmert to hold Israel's fire in Gaza, transfer withheld tax revenues to Abbas and call off a controversial settlement-building project beyond the barrier. American help is also instrumental in keeping Abbas afloat.
Given the dark reality of the past six years, these minor developments are still better than sitting tight in Washington and shrugging off the peace process.- Published 22/1/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Nothing new from Rice
by Ali Jarbawi
The current US administration's Middle East policy has been a tremendous failure. Not only has the promised "new Middle East" not seen the light of day but, Iraq, the country Washington had designated as the fulcrum of democratic change in the region, has instead become a chaotic battleground costing thousands of Iraqi and tens of American lives every month.
With Iraq a swamp dragging down the American administration, an always complicated region is becoming ever harder to handle for the US. By developing its nuclear technology, Iran is bluntly challenging Washington. Syria is exerting varying degrees of influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. The Lebanese government, which is supported by the West, is facing a serious internal stand-off with Hizballah. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is accepted in the West, now has to contend with a government formed by Hamas that the West shuns.
The Israeli government, meanwhile, is creaking from its defeat in Lebanon last year and corruption accusations. Even moderate Arab countries that rely on US support are complaining of the ineptitude of the present administration in adapting its policies to the complications of the region.
The bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton commission, which was formed to investigate the administration's Middle East policies, was damning in its assessment. Contrary to the prevailing " wisdom" of the administration, the report affirmed the interrelatedness of the region's conflicts and problems and fingered the resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict as central.
While US President George W. Bush does not intend to follow the report's recommendations, he could not ignore it completely either. So when announcing his "new" Iraq policy, a policy at odds with the Baker-Hamilton findings, he also sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a tour of the region to garner Arab support.
And as always when the US is at a loss in the region, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict receives renewed attention. This time was no exception. The roadmap was officially launched nearly four years ago, but was completely ignored by erstwhile Israeli PM Ariel Sharon, and the US did little. Now, all of a sudden, Rice proclaimed herself interested in resuscitating the roadmap and remembered that Palestinians are suffering and deserve an end to their suffering in a state of their own.
Yet despite this sudden recollection, Rice had nothing new to offer. She met Avigdor Liebermann, Tzipi Livni and Amir Peretz, held discussions with Abbas, came back to meet Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, roamed various Arab capitals, and announced in every place her desire to find a political solution. But she didn't have a plan. She came, she said, to discover and listen, but the only things to discover were the increasing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and yet more Palestinian suffering.
Nevertheless, in return for promising to increase her efforts to find a solution, she received the desired Arab support for Bush's "new" Iraq strategy. Moderate Arab countries held up her promise as justification for their continued support of US policy. These "moderates" welcomed Rice's announcement of a three-way summit with Abbas and Olmert in the coming few weeks, because what's important to them is change, even if it is only a facade, that promises a "positive possibility" for the future.
Is there really a "positive possibility" in the current US attitude toward achieving a political solution? If "positive possibility" seeks to achieve an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders (with minor and agreed-upon adjustments) and solving the issue of refugees according to international resolutions, then yes. But this is not in the framework of thinking of this administration. Like previous US administrations, perhaps even more, this administration is hostage to the Israeli perspective and adapts to what Israel wants.
Israel currently wants a long-term transitional stage. It is about to finish building the wall that lets it keep what it wants from the West Bank and leaves Palestinians the overcrowded leftovers. These leftovers will then form the body of a temporary state contained behind this wall. If the Palestinians and Arabs accept that, Rice will continue shuttling to seal "the deal". Other than that, there is no "positive possibility" for her to offer.
Should Palestinians and Arabs accept this "temporary" solution then? Is it as good as it gets?
It oughtn't be. The American regional predicament grows deeper every day. Should Arabs stand united, they will be able to earn more than this minimal Israeli offer. Palestinians and Arabs should avoid any transitional solutions. They should avoid a return to a negotiating process that is open-ended and non-sequential and binding.
There is an alternative. Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular should insist on the Arab Initiative as the basis for any negotiations process, and on a clear and agreed upon final goal toward which any negotiations process will serve to specify stages and mechanisms.
But if Palestinians and Arabs return to the same negotiating route as before, Rice, Bush and Olmert will take them for another "ride". That, unfortunately, is the most likely scenario and will be used as justification for transforming this "temporary" state into a permanent one.- Published 22/1/2007 (c) bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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