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.