US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah was different from her eight previous trips to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in her current job. This time around, Rice announced a deeper American involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, a notable departure from the erstwhile hands-off policy of the Bush administration. Moreover, the secretary of state 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 Prime Minister 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 Bush administration – from the media, from the Democrats now in charge of Congress and from the conclusions presented in the Iraq Study Group report – 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 Lebanon war last July and the 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, Fatah 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 separation wall 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 issues. 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 “road map sequence, interpreted as putting negotiations on hold until the Palestinians eradicate terror. Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni 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 road map 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 from Gaza, a deep West Bank withdrawal (the ultimate precondition for 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 separation 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.
Aluf Benn is diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter publishing contending views of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.