Not a good time for shuttle diplomacy

By JONATHAN ARIEL
March 26, 2007 20:48

Nothing can be achieved until after the Winograd report is published.

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Not a good time for shuttle diplomacy

winograd 88. (photo credit: )

Condoleezza Rice's current round of intensive Middle East shuttle diplomacy is an exercise in futility, a waste of the US taxpayers' hard-earned money. The reason is the weakness of the current Israeli government, and the prime minister. No democratic government can negotiate any kind of meaningful diplomatic agreement from a position of domestic weakness. Israeli governments are no exception to this rule. Three Israeli premiers have succeeded in achieving diplomatic breakthroughs. In 1949 David Ben-Gurion negotiated an armistice that ended the War of Independence. In 1956 he succeeded in negotiating a settlement that kept Sinai demilitarized and Israel safe for a decade. The next premier to achieve a similar feat was Menachem Begin, who successfully negotiated Israel's peace treaty with Egypt at Camp David in 1979. It took over a dozen years before a similar feat was achieved, when Yitzhak Rabin negotiated the successful peace treaty with Jordan and the defunct Oslo Accords with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. All these governments were strong and stable, with solid parliamentary majorities and strong, decisive leaders at their helms. Ben-Gurion, Begin and Rabin (in his second term) were all regarded as worthy leaders, men of courage, sagacity and integrity. All were able to command respect from their opponents as well as their supporters because of their leadership qualities. They led by virtue of their convictions, not their pollsters. THE ONE attempt by a weak leader to reach a diplomatic breakthrough was a fiasco. In 2000, a little over a year in office, Ehud Barak went to Camp David to try and reach a final agreement with Arafat. Prior to his departure his government had already lost an effective parliamentary majority. Barak's political ineptitude and astounding (for a politician) lack of understanding of human nature had lost him almost all his political allies. No Israeli leader - nor, for that matter, any other democratically elected leader in the 20th century - had ever attempted to embark upon major diplomatic negotiations from such a position of weakness. Barak was, in effect, hoping to salvage a dying administration by a foreign policy breakthrough. Needless to say, this was doomed to failure. The late (and little-missed) Arafat was guilty of many things, but being a fool wasn't one of them. He saw no reason whatsoever why he should go out on a limb and sign an agreement that he knew could precipitate a Palestinian civil war and possibly lead to his assassination with a man he knew could not deliver. Barak went to Camp David like a man offering a check from an account bereft of any political credit. No Arab leader in his right mind would accept what he knew was likely to turn out to be a rubber check drawn on a bank of dubious solvency. THE CURRENT government is even weaker than Barak's was when he set out on his ill-fated trip to Camp David and seven years of subsequent political oblivion. Although it has, in theory, a parliamentary majority, it is totally paralyzed and has lost its legitimacy. Almost all its major political players (with the notable exception of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni) are currently neutralized. Olmert is under investigation on several cases of suspected bribery and corruption. In addition, his perceived bungling of the Second Lebanon War has left him bereft of any public support, with polling figures equal to those of low-fat cottage cheese. His longtime personal confidante and chef de bureau, Shula Zaken, is under house arrest on serious corruption charges. His most important political ally, Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, is also under criminal investigation, suspected of having embezzled million of shekels of public funds. The most astute political mind in the cabinet, former justice minister Haim Ramon, has been sent off the playing field following a red card in the form of his recent sexual assault conviction. The bottom line is that snowdrops have a better chance of blooming in the Sahara Desert than Rice, or anyone else, has of achieving any kind of diplomatic breakthrough at this time. By the most optimistic calculations there cannot be an Israeli government capable of doing anything before the end of the summer. By that time Olmert will either have vacated the PM's office (most likely), or been miraculously resuscitated by having both escaped censure from the Winograd committee (investigating the management of the war), and having been cleared of all the corruption cases currently under investigation. Either way Israel will not have a government before the end of summer. This being the case, Rice should put everything on hold. Attempting to jump-start serious negotiations just now is a pointless squandering of time, energy and the limited supply of US diplomatic assets and clout on a fruitless diplomatic wild-goose chase. Better to wait until political developments in Jerusalem take their course, at which time there might be a reasonable chance of success. The writer is a veteran Israeli journalist.


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