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.
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.