Diplomacy: Aches and panes

Terrorism and nukes notwithstanding, the international peace-process choir going along with the quartet.

quartet in cairo 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
quartet in cairo 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Suicide bombers may still be blowing up Israelis, Kassams may still be falling on Sderot, Iran may still be marching toward nukes, Hizbullah may still be stockpiling missiles, Palestinians may still be on the brink of a civil war, Hamas may still be giving no indication of changing its stripes, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government may still be on the verge of collapse, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas may still be unable to deliver anything, but listen to the background music emanating from capitals around the world and what you hear is a chorus of people singing - once again - about a Middle East peace "window of opportunity." State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, briefing the press Wednesday on what to expect at Friday's Quartet meeting in Washington, said that the meeting would gauge how the international community can "help generate the support that is going to be necessary if the Israelis and Palestinians are going to exploit the opportunities that are now before them to potentially move the process of reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians forward." German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the eve of a visit to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, said on Saturday that she saw "a window of opportunity to resolve the political problems between Israel and the Palestinian territories, or at least to make a step forward." And EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, on a visit to the region last month, said he believed there was currently a "window of opportunity" that the international community needed to seize to revive the diplomatic process: "We think there is an opportunity now, an opportunity that should not be let go by to open the political process that should end up with the resolution of the conflict." Say what? Are these good people looking at the same region we live in. Window of opportunity? The month after the disengagement from Gaza could have fairly been called a window of opportunity. The Camp David talks presented a window of opportunity. The Oslo accords provided a window of opportunity. But looking at the house today, where exactly is that window that these optimists are talking about? This window, explained a senior Western diplomat this week, has two panes - the Olmert government and the change in thinking taking place at the government level in states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. First, regarding the Olmert government. True, Olmert may be extremely unpopular at home - a YNET poll at midweek showed that were elections held today, his Kadima party would win only nine seats, compared to 32 for the Likud - but they love him in certain capitals abroad. "This is one of the wisest Israeli governments in years," the senior Western official said. "It is not completely closed to new ideas." This is a government that, he added, has proven through its acceptance of UNIFIL forces in Lebanon that it is open to active international involvement, and that is something appreciated around the world, especially in Europe. The official, speaking before the Haim Ramon verdict was handed down on Wednesday, also stressed that that this was a government whose key members were "very pragmatic people." In addition to Olmert and Ramon, he singled out Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit for special mention. The alternative to this government, the official said, was a Binyamin Netanyahu-Avigdor Lieberman government, not exactly a prospect relished abroad. And it is precisely because the prospect of a Netanyahu-Lieberman government concerns so many in the international community that while Olmert has much to worry about - from the Winograd Commission to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to various police investigations to the political ambitions and machinations of Amir Peretz, Livni and Netanyahu - one thing he will not have to fret about, at least for a couple of months, will be international pressure on him to make any dramatic diplomatic move. The international community, well aware of the domestic constellation Olmert is facing, has no interest in complicating his political situation. So when the Quartet principals meet on Friday, and when European foreign ministers meet later in the month, Israel is not likely to come under much criticism or pressure. From a European perspective, the goals spelled out in the Spanish, French and Italian peace proposal floated last November have pretty much been met, even if the proposal itself was roundly rejected in Jerusalem. Olmert and Abbas opened a public dialogue, a cease-fire was declared in Gaza and Israel took some concrete steps to alleviate the situation in the Palestinian Authority, such as the partial release of frozen tax revenues and easing movement in the West Bank. Other elements of the proposal, such as an international peace conference, can wait until Olmert's domestic condition improves. Because of Olmert's domestic weakness, there is little likelihood the US or Europe will push him to remove settlement outposts or go through with a wholesale release of Palestinian prisoners to strengthen Abbas. These are moves that would simply complicate the prime minister's domestic political standing. Moreover, another outgrowth of the desire not to make things more difficult for Olmert is that certain issues bothering some prominent members of the international community - such as the widening of Route 1 from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, a road that some diplomatic officials say simply divides the West Bank in two - are not now coming out in public. A senior European diplomat who briefed the press in Jerusalem this week praised the Olmert government for its policy of restraint, for releasing funds to the Palestinians, for facilitating movement in the West Bank. He had not a word of criticism for the government's policies, something that tells which way the European winds are presently blowing. THE OTHER pane in this much trumpeted window of opportunity is the changed situation in the region. When diplomatic officials talk about changes that have taken place, they inevitably point to the fear in Riyadh, Cairo and Amman about the rise of Iran and the spread of the "Shi'ite arch." While diplomatic officials realize that the situation on the ground here seems to have gotten worse since the Gaza disengagement, what comes out clearly in conversations is the feeling that the attitudes of important players in the region have changed for the better. If in the past, this argument runs, key regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt had wanted to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festering to serve their own domestic purposes, now there is an interest in taking the conflict off the table so it does not forever nourish the region's radicals. These radicals, according to this reasoning, are widely viewed as much as a threat to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan as they are to Israel. And all this fits in very well with the most recent diplomatic buzzwords - providing a "political horizon" for the Palestinians as part of the road map. The idea, first touted by Livni, and then picked up by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is to dangle in front of the Palestinians a rough idea of a final status agreement they could achieve if they would just reject Hamas and the extremists in their midst. The contours of this political horizon, one diplomatic official said this week, were clear - a return, more or less, to what was discussed at Camp David in the summer of 2000. As to why ideas that were rejected by Yasser Arafat more than six years ago would be accepted now, the official provided a simple answer: because Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which opposed these ideas back then, would not only likely accept them in order to rob the radicals of their cause celebre, but also press the Palestinians to do the same. But everyone must act fast, this logic runs, because in no time at all Olmert's government might be gone, and the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt may come up with a different interpretation of their own interests. Hence the narrowness, in the eyes of many in the world, of opportunity's newest Mideast window.