US Affairs: The 'day after' pill

Washington is frustrated since direct talks between Israel and Abbas seem to be unachievable at present.

By NATHAN GUTTMAN
August 24, 2006 22:17
bush giving speech

bush 224.88 ap. (photo credit: AP)

Though the war in Lebanon has ended, it is far from forgotten in Washington. UN resolution 1701 turned out to be anything but the final word on ending Hizbullah attacks against Israel and on getting Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon. A week has passed since the cease-fire took effect, yet the US administration is still entangled with the Lebanon issue: prodding European nations to contribute troops to the international force; struggling in the UN to change the force's rules of engagement; and fighting the perception at home and abroad that in the Lebanon conflict, America bet on a losing horse - Israel. But even as the Lebanon conflict is still consuming the time and energy of the administration's Middle East policymakers, many in Washington are already pondering the "day after." And, where the Middle East arena is concerned, the "day after" means returning to the Palestinian issue. Throughout the war, President George Bush refrained from speaking directly to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, so as not to appear too friendly with Israel. When the two leaders finally did speak, during the war's final days, Bush reportedly asked Olmert: "What about the plan?" He was referring to realignment, which was based on a unilateral withdrawal of Israel from large parts of the West Bank. It may be assumed that Olmert gave Bush the same answer he gave his own cabinet members this week - that realignment was now off the table. Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, on his second visit to the US since the war broke out, tried to put a positive spin on the realignment plan, telling reporters in Washington last week that realignment actually had two elements - one unilateral and one bilateral. Now, according to Peres, it was time to focus on its bilateral aspects. The problem now facing the US administration is that for the first time in years, no peace plan for the Middle East is being discussed. The only operative plan remaining - now that unilateral realignment has been shelved - is the "good old" road map, devised during the Sharon-Arafat era, which provides no more than a sketchy outline for progress at a time when the Palestinian Authority is ruled by Hamas and the Israeli public is growing disenchanted by the idea of withdrawing from territory. SINCE THERE is never a vacuum in the Middle East, the absence of any American or Israeli peace plan is making way for a new Arab initiative which began floating this week. The Arab League plan calls for the UN to sponsor talks between Israel and its neighbors, based in general terms on the Saudi peace plan approved by the Arab League's Beirut summit four years ago. Israel rejected the original plan when it was initially presented; and the US - while praising the Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, for coming up with it - never actually adopted it, preferring its own road map. Yet, with the lack of any other viable plan for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, the new Arab League plan is the only game in town, and thus may gain momentum next month, when it is formally presented at the UN General Assembly. The US administration is even more frustrated at the moment, since promoting direct talks between the Israeli government and the moderate forces in the PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, seems to be unachievable at present. Abbas, who - before the conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon erupted - was trying to lead a bold national agreement based on the "prisoners' document," has since abandoned the initiative. Furthermore, sources in Washington pointed out that Abbas recently authorized paying salaries to Hamas members, an act which endangers any future transfer of American funds for causes within the PA, even those which are directly under the supervision of Abbas. OLMERT'S DECISION to freeze the realignment plan - as well as his weakened political position in Israel, due to dissatisfaction his leadership during the Lebanon war - has left the US with neither a plan for the Middle East, nor a strong partner to rely on. Observers in Washington said this week that the administration does not seem to be worried about Olmert's political prospects, since so far his leadership has not been challenged. But a reliable source, who is in constant contact with administration officials, said that the US understands that Israel now lacks a PM who is capable of carrying out bold moves. While the Palestinian issue is slowly reemerging on the US foreign policy agenda, the main goal for Israel at present is to maintain American support on Iran. As the Iranian issue moves to its final phases in the diplomatic arena, Israel needs to make sure that the US is still on the same page as Israel. Israeli sources stressed this week that both countries share a complete understanding of the need to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and of the fact that any position that falls short of full cessation of nuclear enrichment should lead to international sanctions against Iran. Post-war communication between the US and Israel is being conducted on an ongoing basis by diplomats and intelligence officials from both countries. Economic issues will be raised by Finance Ministry Director-General Yossi Bachar during his upcoming visit to Washington this week to finalize Israel's request to spread out the US loan guarantees over an additional five-year period. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is scheduled to attend the UN General Assembly in September in New York and meet with counterparts from all over the world, including the US. As for Olmert, he is not expected in Washington in the foreseeable future, nor is Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who cancelled his first trip when the fighting in Gaza broke out and has not scheduled a new visit to the US since. HAS THE war in Lebanon weakened the warm relationship between Israel and the US? Diplomats and experts say that relations are as good as ever, pointing to the unlimited support the US provided Israel during and after the war as a sign that nothing has changed. Yet, at the same time, the agenda has changed. Those who were looking at the Olmert government as a partner for bringing about a historic change in the Middle East are now looking at a more modest goal - preserving the calm. If the Israeli government succeeds in preventing a new outbreak of violence in the region, this will be seen by the US administration as a great achievement. Anything beyond that at this juncture seems way too ambitious.


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