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(photo credit: AP)
Reigniting the stalled Middle East peace process is much more difficult than it seems. This was the lesson the Bush administration learned this week, after an intensive drive for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track - which ended up with both sides exactly where they were before.
The idea that in the Middle East there is always an opening for peace after a bloody war led the administration to a frenzy of activity, conducting meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, floating new ideas and stressing the need to do something to fill the void that the Lebanon war had created.
President George W. Bush set the tone this week in his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He chose a brief joint appearance with Abbas, using it to publicly embrace the Palestinian leader and to avoid any reference to the issue of the national unity government Abbas is now negotiating with the Hamas. The Palestinian president was granted the title of "man of peace," a term previously used by Bush when talking about former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Bush did all he could to empower the Palestinian guest (even greeting him with "welcome to Washington," though the meeting took place in New York), but had nothing tangible to offer the visitor from Ramallah. Abbas described the dire situation of the Palestinian Authority, pleading for financial support from America, but Bush did not promise any change in the policy banning direct aid to the PA, before the details of the new national unity government become clear.
The US's Mideast policy is, in many ways, in a deadlock.
The Palestinians have yet to reach the stage in which they can receive international legitimacy, so they are not partners for any bilateral move. The Israelis gave up on unilateral actions, so even as the administration expresses its desire to promote peace, there is no plan on the table. Briefing reporters after Bush's meeting with Abbas, Deputy National Security adviser Elliott Abrams was whether the role the US is now playing is actually that of a spectator, waiting for developments on the Palestinian side.
"Well, I would say, to some extent, yes," Abrams replied. "We cannot be part of the internal Palestinian conversation."
BUT WAITING for the Palestinians doesn't necessarily mean sitting by idly and watching the Fatah-Hamas negotiations from afar. In a closed meeting with Jewish leaders last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed that it was time for progress, and that the peace process had been frozen for long enough. The White House is now talking about the achieving of an agreement as one of Bush's main objectives in the two and a half years he still has in office. And Bush himself announced at the UN General Assembly that Rice would personally handle the Israeli-Palestinian track.
While neither Bush nor Rice seemed to have any new ideas for breaking the Middle East deadlock, one of Rice's senior advisers, State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow, managed to send shockwaves through the foreign policy community this week by declaring that there is a clear linkage between solving the Palestinian conflict and building an international coalition against Iran's nuclear program. Zelikow spoke in front of several hundred Middle East experts attending a conference organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Virginia.
"What would bind that coalition and help keep them together is a sense that the Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed," Zelikow said, adding that for some of the moderate Arab countries and European states that are needed for the coalition, achieving progress on the Palestinian track "is a sine qua non."
Israeli diplomats' initial reaction was to dismiss the senior official's statement, saying they have never heard the US make a tie between coalitions on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet it was too late to stop the snowball from rolling down the diplomatic hill. For Israel, conditioning treatment of the Iranian threat in movement on the Palestinian issue translates into pressure - the thing most feared. Noting Israeli discomfort with Zelikow's statement, the administration was quick to respond. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack issued a statement denying any linkage, and Rice, meeting a couple of days later with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in New York, stressed that the US sees the Iranian and Palestinian issues as two separate matters.
WHY, THEN, did Zelikow mention the linkage so clearly? Some diplomats speculated this week that it signaled going back to the Colin Powell days, during which the State Department was pushing for more movement on the Palestinian track, while the White House kept pulling back in order to avoid pressure on Israel. Others said it was no more than an attempt on the part of Rice to test the water and see what the reactions would be. Still others considered it to have been a statement intended for the ears of those European and Arab countries that Zelikow was talking about - saying to them that the US understands their needs.
There is also a more simple explanation. The senior official simply stated the obvious - that there are countries out there which need to see progress on the Palestinian track as a precondition for supporting pressure on Iran. The US does not agree with them, but still, this is their view, and it must be taken into consideration.
After putting aside the Iran linkage issue, Rice kept the heat on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, meeting both with Abbas and with Livni, and attending a meeting of the Quartet on Wednesday. This meeting proved once again to the Americans that their partners don't always see eye-to-eye with Washington on the way to solve the conflict. Under European pressure to support the national unity government in the PA, the US agreed to include language in the Quartet statement which "welcomed the efforts" of Abbas to form such a government, though the statement also noted the need for the new government to "reflect the Quartet principles."
Then Rice found herself in a debate with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, which ended with an agreement to include a call for Israel to renew the transfer of tax revenue to the PA.
THINGS WEREN'T much easier for US diplomacy on the Iranian front.
Meeting with the "P5+1" - the UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany - the US was faced with a wall-to-wall consensus that negotiations should be given another chance. So, even though the US has declared that the deadline for Iran has passed, Rice had to agree to another extension in order to allow EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to complete his talks with the Iranians.
The need to hold back with sanctions against Iran and the lack of any progress on the Palestinian track demonstrate the difficulties the Bush administration's Middle East policy is facing.
What can be done to achieve a change on the ground? Administration officials avoid using the word "initiative" to describe their actions in the region, fearing the expectations such a term would arouse. But even smaller steps are being taken cautiously. Rice has not yet announced a trip to the region, and will probably make a decision only after the nature of the new Palestinian government is clear; the issue of financial aid to the PA is put on hold, while extending the interim finance mechanism established by the Europeans; and talks with the Israelis have left the administration with no sense of an Israeli plan with which to move the process forward.
The only plan that Washington has now is to get Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to sit together as soon as possible. Bush stressed this goal several times in his meeting with Abbas, and Livni heard the same request when she was in the US.
The expectations for such a meeting are low. Its purpose would be no more than to create some momentum and strengthen Abbas. Anything beyond that is seen in the US as highly unlikely.