Middle East Mediation: Tony, Condi and Friends

Aug 1, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

August 1, 2007
Number 08/07 #01

It’s been a week of intense international diplomacy for Israel and the Palestinians, with first Quartet envoy Tony Blair, then the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers, ostensibly representing the Arab League, and now US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates arriving for talks. This Update is devoted to analysis of recent and current diplomatic efforts.

First up, Aluf Benn, diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, analyses the reception Tony Blair received during his visit last week and what Israeli officials took from their meetings with him. He also explores what role most Israeli officials expect him to play when he returns to the region in September. For this good general discussion of the nature and implications of Blair’s first regional visit, CLICK HERE.

Next up, the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre, (BICOM) has a good backgrounder on the Arab foreign ministers’ visit, including the controversy over whether they actually represent the Arab League, something the Secretary-General of the League denies. BICOM also offers good discussion of the problems of the Arab League peace proposal, while also looking at where the Arab states can play a positive role in peacemaking. For this valuable canvassing of the relevant issues, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Harvey Sicherman, a US foreign policy expert who advised three Secretaries of State, examines the context and prospects of the latest US-led push for progress in the Middle East. Sicherman examines in detail where the latest proposals fit in the context of past US Middle East policy, and concludes with a rather pessimistic prognosis on their chances for success. In particular, he argues that the American administration must find a way to overcome the Hamas/Hezbollah/Iranian/Syrian belief that they can now neutralise the Israeli military advantage through missiles directed against civilians and based amongst their own civilian populations. For Sicherman’s complete argument, CLICK HERE.

Everyone wants a piece of Tony

By Aluf Benn

Haaretz, July 27, 2007

“He is smart, intelligent, not full of himself and has extraordinary personal charm. He knows how to listen and is not at all officious.”

“He is first and foremost an extraordinarily nice person.”

“A leader of world caliber, talented, charming and intelligent. Basically, a friend of Israel.”

“Inquisitive, mainly wants to listen, a serious chap who is well-liked in the world, the best man for the job.”

These are some of the enthusiastic compliments with which Israeli politicians who met with him, showered Tony Blair, the new Middle East Quartet envoy to the region. His two-day visit to Jerusalem seemed like the TV ad of two women fighting over the a Milky pudding: the most senior politicians vied with each other just to get some time in the former British prime minister’s crowded schedule, in spite of which he even managed to include a short visit to Ramallah. After a decade in power, Blair may have lost popularity among the British, but he has numerous admirers in Israel.

Blair’s visit left no doubt about it – an international rock star is now dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. None of the previous personalities or emissaries enjoyed a similar standing, or the prestige and political savoir faire Blair has brought with him to the position. Even the likes of Terje Roed-Larsen, Dennis Ross or James Wolfensohn can’t be compared to him.

The major question that accompanied Blair’s meetings with Israel’s top political echelon concerned his intentions. Will he stick to the limited mandate he has been given by the Quartet to further the building of Palestinian governmental institutions and to prepare them for independence; or will he be pushed into genuine mediation between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and Salem Fayad, on the way to a final-status solution – and perhaps also the Nobel Peace prize?

The answer seemed somewhat vague, even after the marathon meetings Blair held with Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon and Benjamin Netanyahu. One of them left the meetings with the impression that Blair would like to mediate a diplomatic agreement over the West Bank. Another said Blair had told him he would not exceed the mandate he had been given. A third understood that Blair would not deal with those fields in which others are already involved, first and foremost the Americans. Blair appears to be very sensitive to the position of other mediators, advisers and envoys who come here, such as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Blair knows this constitutes an issue. Rice’s undersecretary of state for public affairs, Karen Hughes, who is very close to President George W. Bush, visited Jerusalem after Blair. “Tony will deal with the economic side,” she said during one of her meetings.

Nevertheless, and with all due respect to both this warning and diplomatic manners, there is no doubt that Blair did not leave 10 Downing Street and his place in the front row of world leaders only to take care of repairing Ramallah’s sewage system or appointing a Palestinian state comptroller. The man who has repeatedly declared that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of the problems between Islam and the West, and that this dispute can only be solved if a suitable mediator is found, will try his luck at concocting an agreement. People who met with him before he set off on his mission had the impression that he would take his time, get to know those involved, study the subject in depth, and win the support of both sides before jumping in to swim where many have drowned before him.

Olmert instructed the Israeli side to adopt a “hug-him policy,” intended to turn Blair into an asset and an envoy who will assist Israel. To this end, they are even prepared to accept a certain slight deviation on the part of Blair toward the Arab side, which will add to his credibility. But the job being designed for him, according to one senior official in Jerusalem, is that of a “strategic adviser.” “He will come here, put pressure on us, maintain a high profile for the issue and allow us to transfer messages and activate him vis-a-vis the Arab states,” the source said.

One bomb could destroy it all

The only concern about Blair that could be heard in Jerusalem had to do with the possibility that he might want to broaden the circle of partners to the negotiations. When he refers to his success in ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, Israeli ears hear IRA and translate this into Hamas. Olmert bases his policy regarding the Palestinians on the isolation of Hamas, and has so far met with international understanding and support. He would not be keen for Blair to ruin this approach. It was therefore no coincidence that Olmert’s bureau publicized the warning against allowing Hamas to join the negotiations during the meeting with Blair.

And what did Blair hear from his hosts? Olmert tried to persuade him that he intends to move forward to an agreement but warned that one suicide bomb could prove more powerful than both sides and destroy everything. Livni told him that if he were to assist in strengthening the Palestinians’ capabilities of performance, he would be able to bridge the gap between the “diplomatic horizon” and the reality on the ground. Peres spoke of the economic vision, in which Jordan also plays a part, as a track that would make it possible to move forward quickly. Ramon presented his own assessment. Blair listened to all of them, left for a Caribbean vacation, and will return to Jerusalem in September with proposals for action – centered around the international meeting Bush has announced in order to jump-start the peace process.


Arab foreign ministers visit Jerusalem: context and analysis

BICOM Notes, 31 July 2007


No sooner had Tony Blair left Jerusalem last week than the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt arrived to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative. But whilst the confluence of diplomatic initiatives gives a sense of forward momentum, we are as yet far from a watershed moment of regional peacemaking. The various acts of diplomacy each reflect a desire to support the weakest point in the tent of the moderates, the Palestinian Fatah leadership under Mahmoud Abbas. Despite the hype around the Arab Initiative, the Arab world remains deeply divided. The Saudis are taking a back seat following the embarrassing failure of their intervention in Palestinian internal affairs, and the intentions of the Syrians remain unclear. Whilst Jordanian and Egyptian engagement is positive in and of itself, they can offer little to Israel in terms of broader regional acceptance unless they can bring more Arab states to the table.

After the two ministers report back to the League, the next test of feelings within the Arab world will be the US proposed summit, expected to take place in mid-October. The process leading up to this summit commenced with a scheduled visit to the region this week by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Israel is viewing the entire process as its main priority for the immediate future, noting that opportunities are likely to arise from it.

What was the purpose of the visit?

On Wednesday, 25 July, Abdel Ilah al-Khatib, the foreign minister of Jordan, and Ahmed Aboul Gheit, his Egyptian counterpart, arrived in Jerusalem and met Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Whilst Israeli officials described the visit as an ‘historic’ delegation on behalf of the Arab League, their precise status was not without controversy. That the two were official representatives of the Arab League was keenly denied by the League’s Secretary-General Amr Moussa.1 In Jerusalem the pair described themselves as being on assignment from the ‘Arab Summit’ to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative. The equivocation about just who they represented, and the fact that only representatives of countries which already have relations with Israel came, is an indication of the extreme caution with which the Arab League is moving with regard to the recognition of Israel.

The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by the Saudis and adopted by the Arab League in 2002, was revived earlier this year with the formation of a Working Group tasked with furthering the proposal. The initiative offers full recognition of Israel by the Arab world in return for Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a ‘just’ solution to the Palestinian refugee question based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194. That resolution, adopted at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, proposes that refugees wishing to return may do so, or accept compensation. When the Initiative was first proposed at the height of the second intifada, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon responded coolly, concerned that withdrawal to the 1967 borders threatens Israel’s security, and fearing the ambiguity over the question of refugees. This year, however, Israel’s response was more positive, with PM Olmert offering to meet with Arab leaders.

Israel’s interest in regional engagement appears to have increased following the Hamas coup in Gaza. In a joint press conference with the visiting ministers on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Livni praised the Arab Initiative as representing an historic opportunity for Israeli-Arab relations and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.2 In the wake of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Israel shares a key priority with Egypt and Jordan. All three fear the growing strength of the extreme Islamic movement, and are keen to stop Hamas coming to dominate the West Bank as it has Gaza. With PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas reassuming control of the West Bank, and appointing moderate Salam Fayyad as prime minister, Israel sees a Palestinian partner it finds acceptable to deal with. The strategy for weakening Hamas is to strengthen Abbas and his hold on the West Bank by offering concessions on the ground such as prisoner releases, and by holding out the prospects of more substantial peace talks in the near future. After his meeting with the Arab ministers, PM Olmert confirmed his willingness to advance a process of negotiations with Abbas on the broad outline for a two-state-solution.3 He also stressed that he would welcome discussions with representatives of additional Arab states.4

Limitation of the Arab Initiative

Despite the fanfare around the Arab Peace Initiative, the Arab world is not united on its position towards Israel. Jordan and Egypt are the only two members of the Arab League to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, and they are at the vanguard of the pro-western orientated grouping in an increasingly polarised region. The other grouping, under the influence of Iran, includes Syria, Hamas and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah. The latter made their own contribution to regional diplomacy on Monday, with their leader Hassan Nasrallah declaring in an interview that they had rebuilt their rocket strength and could hit “any point in Israel.”5 Syria, for its part, under international pressure over the UN inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and their continued attempts to manipulate Lebanese affairs,6 are sending mixed messages. Whilst they have been suggesting their willingness to negotiate with Israel on a land for peace basis, they have also been deepening their military ties to Iran, with reports of an arms deal to supply modern tanks and planes to the Syrians.7

The original sponsors of the plan, the Saudis, though keen to halt Iran’s growing influence, appear to have lost the mood to expend political capital on peace initiatives. They feel greatly disappointed at the collapse of the Palestinian unity deal, which they brokered in February, but which the international community refused to back and the Palestinians failed to keep.

Few other Arab states are making their positions public. A further indication of the reluctance of Arab states to throw themselves behind a regional peace initiative is the, as yet, underwhelming response from Arab capitals to US President George Bush’s proposal for a regional conference to be held later this year. It is currently not clear who will attend the conference, an issue US Secretary of State Rice may seek to rectify in her forthcoming visit to the region.8

What can the Arab states bring to the process?

Those Arab states which do wish to engage in the peace process can help in two ways. Firstly they can respond to Israeli concessions towards the Palestinians with conciliatory diplomatic gestures towards Israel. The increase in diplomatic warmth towards Israel from the Arab world in the wake of the disengagement from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank in 2005 was a good example of the way this can help. Israel craves legitimacy in the eyes of its neighbours and the good feeling Israel got from international praise and recognition helped to ease the pain caused by the internally divisive concession being made on the ground.9

The second way Arab states can help is by offering political support to the Palestinian moderate leadership headed by PA Chairman Abbas. They need to back the Palestinians when they engage with Israel, confront extremists and reform their political structures. It has also been suggested that Egypt and Jordan could begin negotiating directly over future relations they will have with a Palestinian state as part of developing the Palestinians’ ‘political horizon’.10

The most vulnerable point in the strategy to bolster the Palestinian moderates in the West Bank is Chairman Abbas himself. Whilst his initial response to the Hamas coup in Gaza – replacing the government and outlawing Hamas’s military wing – was positive, he has little prospect of regaining control in Gaza, and the West has been disappointed in the past by his failure to clean up Palestinian political life and reform his own party. These steps are vital if Fatah is to regain the support of the Palestinian majority. The international Quartet’s Middle East envoy Tony Blair, tasked with building Palestinian institutions, will have his work cut out, but it is success for the Palestinians in the West Bank that will further isolate Hamas in Gaza.

1 Arabs Woo Israel Over Peace Plan, BBC News, 25 July 2007

2 Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Press Conference held with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib, 25 July 2007

3 Aluf Benn and Barak Ravid, PM confirms intention to negotiate with Abbas on formation of Palestinian state, Haaretz, 25 July 2007

4 Barak Ravid, PM meets Egypt, Jordan FMs to discuss Arab peace initiative, Haaretz, 25 July 2007

5 Zeina Karam, Hezbollah: Rockets Can Reach All Israel. Guardian, 24 July 2007

6 See BICOM Notes, 17 July 2007

7 Roee Nahmias; Iran to fund Syrian arms deals – report, 21 July 2007

8 Sue Pleming, Scant details as Rice lobbies for Mideast meeting, Reuters, 29 July 2007

9 See remarks by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom addressing the UN General Assembly, 20 September 2005

10 Robert Satloff, In the Wake of the Hamas Coup: Rethinking America’s ‘Grand Strategy’ for the New Palestinian Authority, Washington Institute for Near East Studies, PolicyWatch #1252, June 26, 2007


Endgame for Palestine

By Harvey Sicherman

Foreign Policy Research Insitute E-notes, July 2007

On July 16, 2007, President Bush delivered a speech marking five years since his declaration of American support for a democratic Palestinian state. The original draft, scheduled a month earlier, had to accommodate an untoward event: the violent seizure of Gaza by Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian party. Hamas is armed and financed by Syria and Iran; its declared objective is the destruction of Israel. This event, like Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006, seemingly repudiated Bush’s policy.

The President, however, has now tripled his bet that the Palestinian cause can be rescued from the Islamists, once again through a partnership with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to be reinforced by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s mission for the Quartet (United States, Russia, European Union, United Nations) and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s mission for a regional conference. This devilishly complex diplomacy will require more skill—and luck—than Washington has enjoyed thus far. Not the least of the complexities is the timetable (roughly the coming fall), which coincides with a likely crisis over Iraq. But, as will be seen, the strategy also depends on a solution to the pressing military problem exposed by last summer’s Lebanon War.

Bush’s Palestine, and Arafat’s

Since June 2002, as an essential element of an overall settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, American policy has sought to foster the creation of a democratic Palestinian state that is opposed to terrorism. On July 16, President Bush reiterated this objective with a fresh embrace of President Abbas (popularly known as Abu Mazen) as the man to do the job. This was his third endorsement of Abu Mazen.

In 2003, and again in 2005, Abu Mazen was depicted as the key to reigniting a peace process that depended on two partners, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who were willing and able to reach a deal. Their risks in doing so were to be reduced by American and international assistance. This formula had worked well between Egypt and Israel, and Israel and Jordan, delivering sturdy peace treaties that have survived assassinations and regional conflicts.

Although the 1993 Oslo Accords between the PLO’s Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin appeared to replicate the pattern, the United States attributed the failed Camp David Summit of 2000 and the subsequent intifada largely to Arafat’s malevolence. Outgoing President Bill Clinton warned his successor against trusting the Palestinian’s intentions, a warning reinforced by Arafat’s behavior in January 2002 over an Iranian arms shipment intercepted by Israel. Bush’s support for a Palestinian state in June 2002, originating partly in the aftermath of 9/11, was therefore hedged with a demand for a democracy with leaders “not compromised by terrorism.” After the swift overthrow of Saddam in spring 2003, Arafat had been forced to accept Abu Mazen, a longtime aide turned critic, as Prime Minister. Despite public approval by Bush, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Jordan’s King Abdullah, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, however, Abu Mazen resigned four months later, mainly over Arafat’s continued control of the security services.

The United States embraced Abu Mazen a second time following his election as President of the Palestinian Authority early in 2005, Arafat having died two months earlier. This time the Palestinian brought to the table a demand for renewed final status negotiations; a partial cease-fire including Hamas, bought at the price of allowing Hamas to participate in Palestinian local and legislative elections without having to endorse the Oslo agreement; and a promise to the Palestinians of reform under the slogan of “one authority, one law and one gun.”

These words were belied by events. The cease-fire had a big exemption for the Syrian-sponsored Islamic Jihad, which promptly began firing rockets on southern Israeli border towns. The promises of reform fell victim to Fatah party corruption and rivalries. Moreover, Prime Minister Sharon, then in the painful process of executing his unilateral disengagement from Gaza, regarded Abu Mazen as a “plucked chicken,” meaning a man incapable of imposing order. The Bush Administration, anxious to obtain Israeli withdrawal and riding a wave of early successes in electioneering around the region, contented itself with post-disengagement economic arrangements and an insistence on Palestinian elections even with Hamas participation. With his party in disarray and Hamas taking the credit for the Gaza withdrawal, Abu Mazen went very reluctantly to the polls.

Sharon’s incapacitation and Hamas’ January 2006 victory dealt a double blow to U.S. policy. Apparently, Arafat’s Palestine was to be displaced not by Bush’s democratic vision, represented by Abu Mazen, but rather by Hamas, an Islamist party (its ideology not far from that of bin Laden’s) and increasingly influenced by Syria and Iran. The Palestinians had elected a living contradiction, giving the presidency to a man who recognized Israel, renounced violence, and supported Oslo, and the government to a party that repudiated Oslo and sought Israel’s destruction through terrorism.

Smothering the Baby, Part I

Following Hamas’ victory, Washington sought to rally a coalition opposed to the new government. The United States, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Fatah sought to smother the baby with minimal violence. They failed. Abbas drifted along, apparently believing that Hamas respected his presidency and would stop short of civil war. Egypt tried to mediate but did not seal the Gaza-Egypt border against arms and money smuggling. The American-sponsored international embargo and Israel’s withholding of tax revenues crippled what was left of the war-ravaged PA economy, but international humanitarian assistance kept the population supplied with necessities.

Still, this war of attrition might have worked if Hamas itself had not upped the ante by kidnapping an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid on June 25, 2006. Then on July 12, Hezbollah captured two more on the Israeli-Lebanese border; its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, indicated he was the new address for all prisoner release negotiations. Suddenly Arafat’s most precious legacy—a PA not dominated by other states – was forfeit to the Hamas military wing in Damascus headed by Khaled Meshal and behind Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

When the Israelis responded to these events with a large-scale military action in Lebanon, the United States and others, notably Saudi Arabia, expected the Israeli Defense Forces to lick Hezbollah quickly without wrecking Lebanon, and through an embarrassing defeat of their expensively coddled surrogate, to paste Syria and Iran. But the Olmert government picked a military strategy that relied primarily on air power. A month later, it had not achieved its goals. In Gaza, Hamas tried to duplicate southern Lebanon’s mix of well-trained terrorists operating amidst a civilian population, using rockets to disrupt Israeli cities.[1]

Disappointed by Israel and anxious to reverse the tide, the Bush Administration turned anew to Abbas, this time to assist him in a confrontation with Hamas—to strangle rather than smother. Encouraged by the alarm this caused in Egypt, Jordan, and especially Saudi Arabia, Washington sought Riyadh’s cooperation in the coming showdown. But Saudi King Abdullah had a different objective: it was not the triumph of Fatah he sought, for he had little confidence in Abbas, but rather the detachment of Hamas from Iran through a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah.

At Saudi invitation, Haniyeh, Meshal, and Abu Mazen met at Mecca. The King arranged a compromise on February 8, 2007, that included shared power, and he underwrote the deal with a billion-dollar pledge. Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh had only to “respect” previous PA agreements. The dealmakers were photographed praying together at Islam’s holiest mosque and then sent back to the PA to make it work. This was coupled with a revival of a Saudi-sponsored Arab League peace plan dating from March 2002. Olmert had some pleasant words for this, but the parts dealing with borders, Jerusalem, and refugees were obviously unacceptable to Israel. Haniyeh abstained on the vote to revive the plan when the League met on March 28-29 in Riyadh.

King Abdullah seemed bolder than his predecessors but, in fact, he was following a well-scripted Saudi pattern. In principle, Riyadh had no objections to an Islamic state, and had never liked Henry Kissinger’s step-by-step approach pairing Israel and an Arab state in negotiations under American auspices. The Saudis were now asking the United States and the Quartet to recognize Hamas’ legitimacy as the price of prying it away from Iran and to abandon the direct negotiations among the parties for a solution that might be imposed from above, providing, of course, that Israel could be brought to terms. That was Washington’s assignment.

There was embarrassment and anger all around. Abu Mazen, who had promised no deals unless the Israeli soldier was released along the lines of an Egyptian scheme for prisoner exchange, had failed again. Egypt and Jordan, too, were not enthusiastic about Saudi leadership of a peace initiative. They hastened to become the principal interlocutors between Israel and the Arab League plan. When the Saudis declined to participate in what might have been a new international conference with Israel, the Olmert government also lost its enthusiasm.

The Mecca Agreement produced a brief pause in the Fatah-Hamas fighting, which had already cost hundreds of lives. Soon the shooting resumed. Hamas’ executive force, formed in direct contravention to an Abbas decree, took the offensive while the Fatah leaders quarreled and dithered. The U.S. military mission, headed by General Keith Dayton, had concocted a plan to unify and train Abu Mazen’s forces, anticipating a showdown. But Hamas struck first. After driving most Fatah leaders from Gaza by threatening their families, Hamas systematically assaulted Fatah positions beginning on June 7. The operation was well planned, very specific and merciless, including the execution of civilians and public assaults on symbols of PA authority. Five days later, it was over.

Smother II

Yasser Arafat’s house was among those looted and wrecked in the aftermath of the Hamas victory. For in a way, what happened in Gaza meant the end of the Arafat state-in-becoming. There was now an alternative to the nationalists: the Islamists.

Hamas can be expected to start well. As demonstrated in Kabul and Mogadishu, Islamists know how to suppress clan and gang warfare. In this case, Arafat’s system of bribery and balancing, so subversive of order, will be ended; a few bloody executions have already made the point. So, to the shame of Fatah and its Western supporters, personal security will probably improve dramatically compared to the West Bank. Hamas has already gone through a propagandistic “liberation” of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Nonetheless, as with the Taliban in Kabul and the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu, the imposition of order will soon be accompanied by the Islamist version of society. And that version also decrees “jihad” against the infidels, which now includes Fatah.

In the month since Gaza’s fall, the same cast of characters that failed to smother Hamas before has determined to try it yet again. Bush’s speech was therefore an attempt to chart a new and more effective course for the next round. The President and his advisors clearly believe that Gaza has clarified the choice. It is no longer a choice between Hamas and Arafat’s legacy, the one standing for purity and order, the other for corruption and chaos, but rather one between a violent Islamism and a peaceful democratic society. At the heart of the presidential rhetoric therefore is the Palestinian choice.

Paeans to the democratic impulse in humanity aside, the Administration seeks to “improve” the offer by persuading the Palestinians that the American way is better than the Hamas way. For the third time, then, Bush has embraced Abu Mazen as his standard bearer.

Is this a triumph of hope over experience? Sometimes weak leaders find the courage when their demise is the alternative. Abu Mazen began to do things he had not done before. He appointed the guardian of financial probity, Salam Fayyad, as Prime Minister of a revised, more technocratic cabinet, signaling a new seriousness about effective government. And for the first time, the Israelis had a Palestinian ally in the deliberate suppression of Hamas’ operations in the West Bank.

The Israelis also behaved differently. Olmert’s government joined the United States and European Union in transferring tax receipts to the Palestinian Authority. Two hundred-fifty prisoners were released, all Fatah. And the IDF reduced its operations, also allowing a kind of amnesty for some of the most wanted al-Aqsa Brigades gunmen as part of a joint plan with the PA to disarm a militia that Hezbollah has been trying to infiltrate. Egypt, too, joined with its own campaign to seal Gaza more effectively. An embarrassed Saudi government renounced its mediation between Hamas and Fatah and King Abdullah paid a highly public visit to Jordan, indicating that bad blood between the Saudis and Hashemites notwithstanding, the Hashemites were preferable to Hamas.

Tripling the Bet

The obvious and early steps having been taken, Bush proposes to triple the bet that the new urgency provoked by Gaza can be translated into a rescue of the Palestinian cause. The method connects three interlocking circles, each on a kind of timetable charged by a new special envoy and an international conference.

Increasing the Heat: The first is to add to the pressure produced by Gaza. Olmert and Abbas have already figured out that they must help each other. Fayyad will be the point man for the detail of producing an effective Palestinian government while Abbas will reserve himself for truly presidential business, namely, negotiations over final status. Olmert’s response indicates that Israel can travel some distance on both these dimensions, easing the restrictions on the Palestinians as they perform, and engaging Abbas on “principles” for final agreement. To judge this progress, Bush proposed another variation of Washington’s latest diplomatic fad, “benchmark diplomacy.” None of these benchmarks, including demands on Israel with respect to settlements and checkpoints, is new, but left unsaid is the sequence of stages, whether they must be taken in tandem, and which are most important.

Stiffening the Noodle: The second circle is the mission led by Tony Blair, an energetic personality whose enthusiasm for the two-state solution has not yet been soured by encounters with reality. His objective, backed by the Quartet, may be described as “stiffening the noodle”: superintending the invention of a serious Palestinian government capable of assuming sovereignty. Nothing in the Palestinian record since Oslo suggests that anything looms on the “political horizon” save a disastrously failed state. No one needs another one of those. The measure of Blair’s success will therefore be whether the Palestinian Authority, shorn of Gaza, can establish Abu Mazen’s original promise of “one authority, one law, one gun.” These are elementary criteria for statehood.

Enlarging the Circle: Third and finally, Bush proposes to enlarge the circle of peacemakers through an international conference chaired by Secretary Rice. The idea conjures up the Madrid Conference of 1991 that assembled Israel and its immediate neighbors following the successful U.S.-led war to free Kuwait. As it turned out, the Madrid framework allowed the parties to make peace with the American initiative rather than with each other; both the Oslo Accords and the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty were achieved outside its framework, while the Israeli-Syrian negotiations failed. This time around, Bush is invoking the Arab League Plan originated by the Saudis in the hope that the circle will be much broader and that the desire to deprive Iran of influence will spur the parties toward agreement. Two parties, however, are not likely to appear as they did in 1991: Syria, now self-excluded, arguing instead for an indirect negotiation with Israel, preconditioned on a mediator and Israeli agreement to withdraw to the 1967 lines; and Russia, excluded by the United States from the co-chairmanship, possibly to keep the lately mischievous Putin within the Quartet. And, of course, only the Palestinians who recognize Israel, renounce violence, and commit to Oslo’s principles will be invited.

The prospects of such an international conference increase pressure on everyone, including Washington, to accelerate Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and the Palestinian Authority’s rehabilitation. Should such a conference be organized, one can expect the President himself to inaugurate it, as did his father sixteen years ago.

The Endgame’s Missing Dimensions

Bush’s triple bet—in effect his endgame for alleviating if not ending the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict – is a long shot. The United States does not ride high now in the Middle East; Iran and its allies are pressing hard; and the President does not command much support in the region, or for that matter, in Washington. Moreover, the two horses dragging the chariot of peace, Olmert and Abbas, are very lame. American gambles in the midst of adversity, however, are not new; in many ways, the local governments prefer it that way. Nor are tactics and timing the real obstructions to success: those determined to reach agreement manage to overcome clumsy diplomacy; and the timing is always bad for someone.

There are two more significant obstacles. One is that the parties are unlikely to agree on the most critical issues. Bush levitated above this thorny ground by advancing principles for a final agreement that invoke all the semi-theology of the conflict: an undefined “security” for Israel; a “viable and contiguous” Palestinian state; territorial settlement “with mutually agreed borders reflecting previous lines and current realities, and mutually agreed adjustments.” These do not exactly translate in the Arab League and Palestinian position of Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines; Jerusalem to the Palestinians, and the refugees’ “right of return.” Nor do they endorse Israel’s version of a viable and contiguous Palestine. On this subject, Bush sought safety by attributing to both Olmert and Sharon the view that Israel’s future should not include “continuing occupation of the West Bank.” Beyond these details, Bush emphasized that Palestinians and Israelis bore responsibility for resolving the issues themselves. This was a strong reaffirmation of the two-party plus international help formula for peacemaking

Behind such sonorous pronouncements lay some disagreeable facts. After six years of intifada and the Gaza results, Olmert cannot offer what Ehud Barak might have offered in 2000. And Abu Mazen will no doubt cling to the Arab League consensus to justify any agreement. The United States is therefore betting heavily that urgency and emergency will turn Israelis and Palestinians in the direction of the incipient late Clinton era compromises circa December 2000-January 2001. Should this not happen, the best that can be done will be to draw out a discussion of “principles” while improving the situation on the ground

The second obstacle, however, is one that Bush does not address at all. Hamas is excluded as the Smother II campaign proceeds. Arguments to “engage” Hamas, to use another faddish cliche, are crippled by what Hamas has to offer and the consequences of doing so. Hamas’ proposed long-term cease-fire with Israel, like its earlier cease-fires, is likely to be many things but not a total cease-fire. And under cover of this arrangement, Hamas will expect to ease its isolation while consolidating its position. Indeed, many observers expect that, rather than see this happen, Abu Mazen may pocket what he can get from the United States and Israel preparatory to renegotiating another unity government, this time on terms more favorable to Fatah.

More significantly, the U.S. policy has no answer to the most important recent military developments, the real missing dimension in his speech. This is the view, shared by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria, that they have found a way to deter if not negate Israel’s military advantages, thereby enabling them to damage Israel with relative impunity. By deploying well-trained troops that use Palestinian civilians as shields and Israeli civilians as the targets, largely through missile fire, Hamas hopes to duplicate Hezbollah’s feat during the second Lebanon War. Then Israel hesitated fatally between annihilating Hezbollah positions in the south with firepower because of the probable high civilian casualties or using Israeli infantry, also with probably high casualties. The ultimate Israeli sanction, the reoccupation of Gaza, and resumption of responsibilities there, is its own self-deterrent. Yet, without a military solution to this challenge, Hamas will be able to bring about a violent interruption of any negotiation that looks like success. Bush’s triple bet and to some extent his longer plans in the region therefore depend on a fourth bet, namely, that Israel will find an answer to this strategic dilemma that reinforces rather than disrupts the diplomacy.


See Sicherman, “Lebanon: The Two-in-One Crisis,” Aug. 8, 2006, at www.fpri.org/enotes/20060808.middleeast.sicherman.lebanon2in1.html

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is president of FPRI and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state.



Palestinian Red Crescent workers from Al-Najjar Hospital in the city of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on January 10, 2024 (Image: Shutterstock)

Hamas’ impossible casualty figures

Mar 28, 2024 | Update
455daec3 C2a8 8752 C215 B7bd062c6bbc

After the Israel-Hamas ceasefire for hostages deal

Nov 29, 2023 | Update
Screenshot of Hamas bodycam footage as terrorists approach an Israeli vehicle during the terror organisation's October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO (Screenshot)

Horror on Video / International Law and the Hamas War

Oct 31, 2023 | Update
Sderot, Israel. 7th Oct, 2023. Bodies of dead Israelis lie on the ground following the attacks of Hamas (Image: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/Alamy Live News)

Israel’s Sept. 11, only worse

Oct 11, 2023 | Update
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu (r) gets his long-awaited face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York (Photo: Avi Ohayon, Israeli Government Press Office)

Netanyahu meets Biden, other world leaders, in New York

Sep 27, 2023 | Update
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who gave an address on Aug. 28 threatening the US and laying out the Iranian-led axis's new "unity of the arenas" doctrine. (Photo: Shutterstock, mohammad kassir)

US-Iran prisoner swap deal set to go through

Sep 12, 2023 | Update




“There is a distinct lack of leadership not just here in Australia but in other jurisdictions [too]”: Joel Burnie on Sky News

Eden Golan performs 'Hurricane' at Eurovision 2024 (image: screenshot)

Holding on to hope in the eye of a hurricane


Antisemitic campus extremists don’t understand meaning of free speech

Image: X/ Twitter

Palestine vote the worst of all worlds for Australia

Screenshot 2024 05 14 At 12.20.28 PM

Australian UN vote ultimately rewards the terrorism of October 7 – Natasha Hausdorff on Sky News


“There is a distinct lack of leadership not just here in Australia but in other jurisdictions [too]”: Joel Burnie on Sky News

Eden Golan performs 'Hurricane' at Eurovision 2024 (image: screenshot)

Holding on to hope in the eye of a hurricane


Antisemitic campus extremists don’t understand meaning of free speech

Image: X/ Twitter

Palestine vote the worst of all worlds for Australia

Screenshot 2024 05 14 At 12.20.28 PM

Australian UN vote ultimately rewards the terrorism of October 7 – Natasha Hausdorff on Sky News