Palestinian leadership circles are cautiously optimistic due to the renewal of high-level American contacts. United States Secretary of State Colin Powell met Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei on May 15 and today, May 17, the prime minister heads a delegation that will confer with US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in Berlin.
These contacts are a drink of water after a long drought. The most recent high-level Palestinian-American meeting was last July when US President George W. Bush received previous Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the White House. Hence, Palestinian optimism is based on the analysis that the renewal of discussions reflects a US revision of its approach to the conflict, which until now has been to neglect and openly boycott the Palestinian leadership and--lest it be forgotten--the Palestinian people in general.
It is possible that this revision comes as a result of the widespread belief that US Middle East policy is suffering and that the perceptions of the United States and Americans in the region are badly deteriorating. One of these failures, after all, resulted from hasty American support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for Gaza. Regrettably for all except Sharon, the president of the United States spent what he did not own for a commodity that Sharon never delivered.
Bush rewarded Sharon for his vague plan by conceding international legality, only to find belatedly that Sharon was unable to implement the plan he was rewarded for. This was an embarrassing setback for the Bush administration and for US Middle East policy in general. And it comes hand in hand with other failures, including the dramatic increase in Israeli violence against Palestinians as exemplified by the unnecessary killing of an unprecedented number of people in Gaza, as well as the difficulties that the administration is facing in its occupation in Iraq, including the awkward prisoner abuse scandal. The hope here is that perhaps the Americans are turning a corner.
The other reason for optimism among Palestinians is that this meeting coincided with the news that the most recent meeting of the Quartet, the Middle East working group made up of Russia, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, has decided to commence discussions of--and perhaps even codify--an "implementing mechanism" that will go beyond the usual Quartet reiteration of commitment to the roadmap and try to stipulate how and when practical steps should be implemented by the parties.
There is, of course, a great deal of caution bound up in this new optimism. Palestinians also fear that this meeting is only designed to serve American public relations needs and defuse the growing anger against and criticism of the United States in the region. One indicator of the possible lack of seriousness were Colin Powell's recent comments about President Arafat. They seem particularly odd given that nearly all involved have acknowledged that the Palestinian people can only be delivered to the peace process and a ceasefire if the president throws his political weight and endorsement behind it.
The unilateral Israeli approach is facing a deadlock, whether it comes from inside Israel or from Palestinian-Israeli relations themselves. The recent escalation in violence should be encouragement enough to find another way out. Given a possible renewal of American and international peace efforts, it is useful to remind all involved that while it is very hard to make a unilateral approach succeed, a comprehensive package of three components--security, political rewards and economic benefits--has a good chance of success. But every component must include enough reciprocity to allow each of the two sides to feel that they are making progress towards their respective objectives.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
The United States, we are informed, is upgrading its contacts with the Palestinian Authority. Both Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). But the meetings are virtually meaningless. None of the principals--neither President George W. Bush, whom Powell and Rice represent, nor Qurei's mentor Yasser Arafat, nor Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--has a realistic strategy for peace. None is motivated enough to turn these meetings into a new point of departure in the process.
One recent illustration regarding each of these leaders will suffice.
Bush's failure, or, better put, abstention from the process, reached its focal point in June of last year, when he launched the roadmap at the Aqaba summit. Here was his opportunity to do what his Republican predecessors had done so well--Richard Nixon in 1974-75, when he sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to shuttle between Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus for months to facilitate force separation and lay the foundation for Egyptian-Israeli peace; and the elder George Bush in 1991, when his secretary of state, James Baker, shuttled back in forth to put in place the Madrid summit.
In George W. Bush's case, Rice, though not secretary of state, is the current equivalent of Kissinger and Baker in that it is she who is seen to speak in the name of the president. To give the roadmap a chance to work and at least stabilize the situation, Bush in June 2003 had to empower Rice to remain in the region until further notice, shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and invoke the president's authority, i.e., threaten and apply pressure on both sides, until the roadmap began to work. Bush even indicated that he understood the principle involved when he declared that the US now had to "ride herd" on the Israelis and Palestinians to ensure their compliance. While neither Arafat nor Sharon would easily cooperate, the new man on the scene, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), was someone the Americans ostensibly could work with.
Following the Aqaba summit, Bush sent Rice to the region to ride herd for one day. In her meetings in Ramallah and Jerusalem, no one dared say no to her. Then she departed, and hasn't returned since. Abu Mazen's government lasted barely four months, thanks at least in part to Bush's lack of support. An American election year kicked in, and Bush now finds himself up to his neck in problems in Iraq. The only reason he is sending Rice to meet Abu Ala is to try to buy a little Arab good will, against the backdrop of Iraq and the demoralizing effect of Bush's April 14 final status commitments to Israel. To emphasize just how distant she intends to remain from this process, Rice is meeting Abu Ala in Berlin. The US will continue to pay lip service to the roadmap and, more recently, to Sharon's disengagement plan. But at the critical moment last June, Bush's policies in the Israel-Arab sphere completely failed his own "riding herd" test. Basically, Bush never had a plan.
Neither does Sharon. Disengagement, which has its merits, is described openly by Sharon as being intended to fill a vacuum in the process. First Sharon helped create the vacuum; more recently he has embraced disengagement for all the wrong reasons. Worse, his apparent disdain for any constructive interaction with the US and Israel's neighbors regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace is illustrated by the incredibly na´ve peace plan that he sent National Security Adviser Giora Eiland to present to Washington some weeks back: Egypt cedes territory from Sinai for the Palestinian state and in return Israel cedes one-third as much territory from the Negev to Egypt and enables Egypt to tunnel under the rest of the Negev and link up to Jordan! Suffice it to say that Sharon never asked either the Egyptians or the Jordanians, who can only wince at this incredible scheme, and that the Americans, to their credit, reportedly laughed Eiland out of the room.
Finally, there is Arafat--not Abu Ala, who makes little pretence about bowing to Arafat's authority. On May 15, Naqba Day (and Israel's independence day on the global, rather than Hebrew, calendar), Arafat spoke at the muqataa, live on Palestinian television. The international community "didn't have the right" to create Israel, he told his audience. Palestinians would never give up the right of return, which is sacred. He signed off with a call to Palestinians to "terrorize your enemy."
In one short speech, Arafat managed to reiterate all the volatile views that have led so many people in Israel, the Middle East at large and the international community to conclude that he is not a candidate for a viable peace process. And lest we be told that this was a particularly emotional speech required by the commemoration of a day of tragedy for Palestinians, we should recall that these are by and large the same positions taken by Arafat since Camp David II in mid-2000.
Bush, Sharon, Arafat: a failure of leadership. All the rest pales in relative significance. Including the Rice-Qurei meeting in Berlin.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Today I went to the community center in my town of Rafah, here in the southern Gaza Strip, only to find people frantic with worry. Israeli tanks have closed off our town and there are reports, even now, of more tanks being moved in to the border area between Gaza and Egypt. Several of us in the community took it upon ourselves to try to calm the residents, many of whom were packing their things and abandoning their houses in fear that Israel would fulfill its threats to demolish them.
You must stay, we told them. We cannot have a third catastrophe. We have lived two wars and left two homes. We have no option but to stay.
Rafah has had more than 1,100 homes demolished over the course of the last three years. Those who have been made homeless are now renting in other parts of the town, but there are no more homes to rent. Outside this very community center, there are families living in the soccer field. Some are staying in schools at night, and still others are living in tents in the street.
We told them that there are contacts between the Palestinian Authority and the United States, between Egypt and Israel. But who can say what will happen to these people in the coming hours? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to finish off Rafah, and if he wants to level the whole place, he will.
I heard what Secretary Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said about the Palestinians after their meetings with the Palestinian Authority. And I have to say that they are fooling no one. While the Americans want to appease the Arab world by showing that they are meeting with our leadership, the truth will be written in my town, perhaps tonight. The common denominator between this American administration and Israel is their mutual wielding of power and violence. Together, Israel and the United States have chosen to isolate the Palestinian Authority. Now we will see if the United States will sanction more bloodletting of innocents. Rafah is surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and settlements and our people have no escape.
And I believe it will be a massacre if the Israeli military enters Rafah in order to demolish those homes along the Gaza border. People here are preparing themselves. They will not surrender to the bulldozers in silence. The Israelis will come with many weapons, and the Palestinians will use what they can.
Two nights ago, two missiles were fired from a helicopter at two in the morning into the offices of my newspaper, al Risala. The computers, the furniture lie in smithereens. That office sits in the middle of a residential area in Gaza City. Israel is trying to smother even our ability to speak.
Mr. Bush, you have the power of the presidency in your hands. I believe that you know the truth. You know that the Palestinian people are living under a terrible occupation. You know that our days and nights are haunted by screeching missiles flung from the sky. You know that the day that we do not see death is a rare day in our lives.
How then do you, as a man committed to democracy, agree with Sharon's practices? I am asking you now to live in our tragedy, to listen to the crying of our frightened children, to hear the frantic voices of my people. Listen very well, and then decide.
Ghazi Hamad is a journalist and editor of al Risala newspaper in the Gaza Strip.
The resumption of high-level dialogue between the Bush administration and the Palestinian Authority represents a visible change in American diplomacy, which has all but ignored the PA in recent months. Nevertheless it is an empty gesture, meant to appease the growing anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and to offset the obvious "tilt" of President George W. Bush in support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. No meaningful results can be expected from the meetings between the Palestinian premier, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) and senior American officials. They should be considered photo-ops, with little content or lasting influence.
Abu Ala is too weak politically to deliver anything, just like the other players in the Israeli-Palestinian-American triangle. Sharon is licking his wounds after his defeat in the Likud referendum over his disengagement plan to remove Israeli settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank. His plan frozen, Sharon is trying to forge a cabinet majority for an updated version, while waiting for the attorney general's decision over his possible indictment for bribery. Bush's war in Iraq has soured, and he is facing a neck-to-neck reelection race, where Jewish votes and contributions could play a crucial role.
The "virtue of weakness" has been tried before as a recipe for Middle East peacemaking. It was the basis for Ehud Barak's daring openings towards Syria and the Palestinians when he was prime minister. The idea was that for politically weak leaders--aging Arab rulers, a coalition-dependent Israeli premier, and an outgoing American president--taking bold decisions could be the best survival strategy. But herein lies the paradox, since the political weakness itself is the barrier to progress. Barak's gamble failed, and the peace process collapsed into the current Israeli-Palestinian war. In comparison, present-day leaders are even weaker than in 2000.
Abu Ala's position appears unbearable. Having no real authority, he is totally dependent on PA leader Yassir Arafat. Abu Ala's job security depends on being a figurehead, a moderate buffer between the boycotted Arafat under house arrest and the rest of the world. Any attempt by Abu Ala to show independence would inevitably be refuted by Arafat, whose strategy is to sit tight and let the Israelis sink in the mud of Gaza and the West Bank until they leave in despair. Obviously, Arafat has no interest in the political and security reforms called for by the roadmap, which would strip him of his power.
Sharon has all but sidestepped Abu Ala. Their proposed meeting, rejected at first by the Palestinians, was put off indefinitely by Sharon following a terror attack in the port of Ashdod in March. Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan leaves no role for the PA, either before or after Israel's proposed withdrawal. Israeli officials have also tried to convince the Americans that Abu Ala is useless, hence the need for a unilateral approach to break the deadlock.
The Palestinians have made no real effort to improve their image in America, sensing perhaps that Bush favors Sharon anyway, especially when he craves Jewish electoral support. Moreover, American-Palestinian relations are still clouded by the failure of the PA to catch and punish the killers of three American security guards in Gaza, seven months ago. Last week's deadly events in Gaza have further exposed the PA's irrelevance and incompetence. Negotiations for returning the captured body parts of dead Israeli soldiers involved Egypt, the Islamic Jihad and local security chiefs. The PA leadership in Ramallah played virtually no part in the deal, according to Israeli officials.
The Bush administration was surprised by Sharon's failure in the Likud referendum, but quickly decided to ignore it. The Americans appropriated the plan and tried to sell it to their European and Arab friends, thus preventing Israel from turning back. They viewed Sharon's loss, and the vacuum it created, as an opportunity to repair their deteriorating relations with the Arabs, following the atrocities at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Bush's written promise to support Israel's positions on borders and refugees in a future final-status deal with the Palestinians. The chosen vehicle was Abu Ala, who was suddenly pulled out of the diplomatic freezer.
The Americans have learned the lessons of their overenthusiastic welcome last year to Abu Ala's fallen predecessor, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). They decided to give Qurei a more lukewarm treatment, and refrained from inviting him to Washington, meeting him instead in Jordan and Germany. According to Israeli sources, Bush's letter to Abu Ala was full of demands about fighting terrorism and PA reform. Even the most optimistic American officials expressed virtually no expectations from the meetings with him, while the Palestinians wanted mainly to appear relevant to a future negotiated process
Sharon senses the weakness on the other side, and has chosen to dismiss the new American-Palestinian hugfest. Sticking to his unilateral approach, he rejects suggestions to renew negotiations with the PA, and pays only lip service to the roadmap. Sharon's survival depends on forging a new majority within Likud, and slipping out of indictment. Abu Ala cannot possibly help him on these two fronts.
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic correspondent of the Israeli daily Haaretz. He has covered Israeli-Palestinian relations for over a decade.
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