The most notable thing about US President George W. Bush's July 16 speech was that it marked a continuation of US policies that have failed in the Middle East in general and with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular. The general reaction in the region was therefore negative, and any excitement generated did not last for more than a day.
To start with, Bush lacks the credibility and the credentials to make proposals that commit the parties and the international community to any clear course of action. The idea of an international conference, for example, might have been taken seriously if it came from the Quartet, and if it came after some study, preparation and coordination.
His repeated reference to the "moderates" is confusing and even backfires. Who are the moderates? Are they the ones who believe in a negotiated solution based on international law? In this case most Israelis, including the present government, are excluded.
The reference to making peace with the Jewish state on the basis of "current realities" is very loaded. To Palestinian ears that can only mean Bush intends for us to accept an illegal reality that was created by force. The only consequence of such words is that they will increase the Israeli appetite for more settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, referring to the current reality as a benchmark--the facts on the ground in the form of settlements and the wall--implies that the illegal changes that Israel has imposed on the occupied territories are irreversible.
The only way to convince anybody on the "other side"--i.e., the Palestinians and the Arabs in general--of Bush's seriousness, is to use American-Israeli relations to at least put an end to ongoing illegal Israeli measures that consolidate the occupation, particularly the expansion of settlements. Bush cannot convince Palestinians and Arabs that he is serious about his "vision" of two states living side by side unless he contributes to such a solution by making sure some space is left for the one state that hasn't been realized yet.
Another problem with Bush's speech is that it envisions continued US monopoly on the peace process, even when critics, including many in the administration itself, have pointed out Washington's abject failure in this regard. This determination to maintain a US monopoly is evident in the American attitude on the future mission of Tony Blair. It was reported that in a telephone conversation a few days before his speech, Bush told President Mahmoud Abbas that Blair's mission would be confined to coordinating international aid, economic and social development and building the institutions of a future Palestinian state, while the political file would remain with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The American monopoly on international peace efforts, America's special relations with Israel, as well as the compromising of international law by Washington are among the main reasons for the failure of the peace process and the subsequent deterioration and radicalization. The US justification has always been the vital strategic role Israel plays vis-a-vis American and western interests in the region. However, it is evident that Israeli influence on the US agenda in the region, particularly as regards Iran/Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is directly responsible for the many negative setbacks to western interests, regional stability and general development that we are witness to now.
It is about time that other countries, particularly European countries, take a more proactive role. Europeans need to promote an alternative approach infused with European understanding to coordinate international efforts and base them on international legality to solve this conflict and potentially many more. It can only be hoped that such a rational approach will eventually win the full backing of the US.- Published 23/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
In his speech last week on Israeli-Palestinian issues, President George W. Bush for a change said all the right things. Indeed he, PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas are all beginning to do the right things. There does not appear to be any more attractive or even feasible alternative course of action on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda. These are grounds for guarded optimism.
Yet all three are weak leaders whose chances of success are extremely low and this is cause for pessimism.
Now that Abbas and his able prime minister, Salam Fayyad, are unencumbered by the need to accommodate Hamas in the West Bank, they are committed to tackling the vital task of internal reform within the Palestinian Authority's security and other institutions. Olmert has enhanced and stabilized his coalition at least for a few months until the Winograd commission issues its final report. He is desperately in need of a strategic achievement that will garner him public support. Hence he has begun to make the kind of gestures--prisoner release, amnesty, transfer of tax monies--Abbas needs to restore his own credibility. And Bush has now weighed in with talk about financial aid, institution-building and an international meeting to launch a peace process once the PA is in better shape.
But to no one's surprise, none of the three is yet engaged in the really heavy lifting, and it's doubtful they will be soon. Abbas, who needs the PLO more than ever as a policy vehicle in view of his government's doubtful legal status within the PA, has not even begun to reform the fossilized decision-making institutions of the Palestinian national movement he heads, even as he burns his bridges with Hamas with angry rhetoric. Fayyad is liable to be hurt more than helped by the administration's exaggerated adoration. Olmert cannot hope to make an impression on Abbas' constituency until he resumes in earnest dismantling outposts (something Bush reminded him to do, but so gently as to preclude any sign of American pressure) and planning the dismantling of settlements, and until he frees Marwan Barghouti and other non-Hamas heavyweights--tasks that still appear likely to overwhelm his coalition.
As for Bush, in view of his record over the past six and a half years it's hard to avoid the conclusion that last week's speech was, like previous pronouncements on Israel-Palestine, just talk. His presentation seemed designed more to show his Quartet partners--whom he needs on board for dealing with Iran and Afghanistan--that he's not sitting idly by while the Middle East burns. His determination to keep boycotting Hamas hardly corresponds with the policies of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two key Middle East allies whose cooperation is vital and who counsel keeping channels of communication open because eventually a new unity government will become necessary. He can hardly expect the Saudis to "send cabinet-level visitors to Israel" under these circumstances.
Bush's aides quietly acknowledge that his democratization program for the region is a shambles, yet he apparently doesn't recognize that his strategy of undoing the damage of democratization in Gaza by relying on Mohammad Dahlan and General Keith Dayton merely helped cause greater damage in the form of the Hamas takeover. And as he acknowledges obliquely in the opening sentence of his speech, Iraq remains his real preoccupation in the region.
Even Bush's endorsement of an international "meeting" in the fall has begun to look hollow--downgraded in importance by his spin-masters, unlikely to be attended by many key Arab players and chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rather than the president himself. Perhaps most important, a fall conference is far too early to congratulate Abbas on the fulfillment of his reform obligations, even with the help of Tony Blair. It's even too early for Olmert to report on making a serious effort to roll back the settlements.
Yet the timing issue is likely to be immaterial. Under present regional circumstances and bearing in mind the difficult political situations in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah and the strengths and (mainly) weaknesses of the leaders in question, the prospect of a successful confidence-building and institution-building process leading up to the declaration of renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO sometime in the coming half year is far-fetched. Not only are Iran, Syria and Hamas determined to thwart this design, but Egypt, Saudi Arabia and much of the Quartet harbor doubts about Abbas and Fayyad as exclusive leaders.
Olmert, who is apparently preparing an alternative strategic track by renewing negotiations with Syria, appears to know this. Bush is reportedly not as opposed to this direction as his rhetoric might indicate. Yet Abbas may well turn out to be our last chance before Hamas takes over the West Bank as well as Gaza. That's why, for all its drawbacks and defects, it's important that we try to implement the new Bush policy approach.- Published 23/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons 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
Turning theory into reality
by Daoud Kuttab
On paper, Palestinians can't complain about the content of US President George W. Bush's recent speech calling for an international peace conference to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After years of denial, Bush finally agreed that resolution of the conflict is important to the region and the world. He supported the Arab peace initiative and responded to Arab demands that the conflict be resolved in the context of an international conference. He also reiterated his call for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.
Bush even used the word "occupation". He called for the removal of the "illegal" (in Israeli terminology) settlement outposts and emphasized the need to stop the expansion of settlements. And although there was nothing new financially in what is being offered to Palestinians, the fact that monies will be transferred directly to the Palestinian Authority and not through NGOs opens the way for others to support the PA directly.
But while in principle the president's speech was perfectly acceptable in Palestinian eyes, the same can be said of speeches, initiatives and official US declarations since 1967. The problem, now as before, is in finding a way to implement the fine words that can penetrate the political and physical obstacles Israel will throw in their way. All the time while Israel was ignoring past initiatives and the political will for implementing them was found wanting, Israel quietly continued its illegal settlement-building process ensuring that future plans would collide even harder with the reality on the ground.
The latest reality on the ground has come about in part as a result of a misguided Palestinian belief that the world community--if not Israel--would respect the results of free and fair elections. Now, unfortunately, when Bush talks about a two-state solution, Palestinian black humor understands it as being about the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fateh-controlled West Bank. Talk of any future confederation with Jordan has been replaced in the jocular with a potential West Bank-Gaza confederation. The US and its allies are choosing a time when Palestinian support for a two-state (Israel and Palestine) solution has been gradually eroding, to express its determination to reach such a goal, even if difficult issues like Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees are not on the table and were not mentioned in Bush's speech.
While content is of utmost importance, a major stumbling block has long been process. Over the years the step-by-step approach has proved a major failure and the concept of gradualism with benchmarks and timelines has backfired miserably. A radical Jewish Israeli chose to assassinate PM Yitzhak Rabin and put an end to his peaceful intentions before a strategic Israeli decision in 1995. Radical Islamic organizations have similarly timed their dramatic attacks to occur just before major events--whether they be Israeli elections in 1996 or various planned Israeli redeployments. And instead of the parties to the conflict identifying the intentions of these radicals, the opposite happened and peace processes were suspended, thus allowing radicals their victory.
What is needed is a reversal of the traditional peace process. If a new process is going to work, it must begin with the end game and then work its way toward implementation. After 40 years of occupation, the idea that progress can be achieved with goodwill gestures such as tiny prisoner releases and the removal of a few checkpoints is wildly misguided.
The Arab peace initiative and a score of unofficial Israeli-Palestinian plans have focused on deciding first what the end game should be and then creating the process to suit the solution. The 1967 borders as the natural borders of the Palestinian state (with possible land swaps equal in size and quality) is a logical framework for the parties to accept. If the planned international conference does agree to such a clear-cut agreement, then the Bush administration may yet prove to have the potential to produce a lasting and comprehensive peace.- Published 23/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian columnist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Olmert's convenient timetable
by Aluf Benn
Even a glance at the White House website suffices to note the stark difference between President George W. Bush's "visionary" speech of June 24, 2002 in which he laid out his commitment to Palestinian statehood, and its pale sequel of last Monday. Five years ago, Bush stood in the Rose Garden surrounded by the top officials of his first administration. His much-anticipated speech topped the White House agenda of the day. This time, it was the fourth and last item on the daily list of presidential events, even below the personnel announcement. The president appeared all by himself, and his aides chose an uninspiring, deliberately noncommittal headline for his speech--"President Bush discusses the Middle East"--as if he were an analyst, rather than the world's leader charting a course of action.
The message is clear: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a sideshow. Bush went through the motions but failed to show resolve. In the speech, which emerged from a last-minute decision, Bush did not repeat his post-reelection pledge to "spend the capital of the United States" to establish a Palestinian state during his second term in office. His overall message, however, remains unchanged since 2002. Now, as then, he puts the famous "ball" firmly in the Palestinian court. Five years ago he called for a new Palestinian leadership, aiming to push Yasser Arafat aside. The contemporary version presents the Palestinians with "a moment of choice" between Hamas and the moderates, Mahmoud Abbas and Washington's darling, Salam Fayyad. If the Palestinians behave themselves, support the moderates and root out terrorism and corruption, they will get their coveted state in the West Bank and Gaza.
From the perspective of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Bush speech could hardly be more convenient. It might as well have been drafted at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. Olmert's stated policy calls for an Israeli withdrawal from most West Bank territory in order to preserve Israel's Jewish majority under the strain of demography. The mild demands made by Bush on the Israeli side--outpost removal and a settlement freeze--coincide with Olmert's own statements, although he has yet to deliver on them. Both Bush and Olmert have spun the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June as a great opportunity to bolster Abbas. Olmert has followed up with gestures like releasing tax revenues, freeing Palestinian prisoners and resuming security cooperation in the West Bank.
Bush's harsh tone against Hamas, tougher than Israeli statements, frees Olmert from the dilemma of dealing with the new rulers of Gaza. At least for now, it shields Olmert from efforts by Arab and European governments to include Hamas in the political process and encourage Palestinian unity. Even regarding the Arab peace initiative, Bush sufficed with calling it "a welcome first step" rather than asking Israel to accept it as the basis for negotiations. Bush accepted Abbas' demand to move directly to final status negotiations, skipping the optional second stage of the roadmap that suggests a Palestinian state within provisional borders. But here, too, Olmert--who balks at discussing final borders, Jerusalem, or the refugees--has nothing to worry about. Abbas and Co. must fight terror in earnest before the United States gives a green light to final status talks.
These points, important as they are, were meant mostly for peace process buffs. The real game is in the Israeli domestic arena. There Olmert, unpopular and widely criticized for his conduct during last summers' Second Lebanon War, is preoccupied with keeping his job. American support and diplomatic moves are well-practiced recipes for political survival in Israel, as Ariel Sharon showed with his Gaza disengagement. Bush's speech gives Olmert both. Once again, the president lent Olmert a helping hand, tailored his policy to Olmert's political capabilities and restrained the activism of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. To this, Bush added a small prize, namely the convening of "an international meeting" in the fall to promote Palestinian statehood.
The meeting's proposed timeline coincided with the anticipated release of the Winograd commission's final report, widely expected to castigate Olmert for his war leadership failures and possibly call for his ouster. But if the prime minister is busy peacemaking, the commission might hesitate to force his resignation. Moreover, Ehud Barak's Labor party will never leave the coalition on the eve of a diplomatic breakthrough, even after a tough Winograd report. Barak will have to renege on his previous somewhat ambiguous pledge and explain that the future is more important than settling past scores. Moreover, the international meeting preparations will keep the diplomatic arena busy and raise speculation--and Israeli headlines--over possible Saudi participation (which currently appears highly unlikely.)
Last Wednesday, two days after the Bush speech, Olmert received more good news when the Winograd commission indicated a further delay of its report. This prompted him to issue an unprecedented bid for reelection and to declare that Abbas, while not ideal, is the best Palestinian partner that Israel could have at this point in time. "We will have to make tough decisions to preserve the Jewish character of the state," Olmert told a group of veteran kibbutzniks, hinting at a negotiated West Bank withdrawal.
Like Bush, Olmert said the right words, but the test will be in his deeds: will he suffice with pushing the problem aside at minimum political cost, or will he take action to fulfill his pledge?- Published 23/7/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of Haaretz.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.