Diplomacy: Facing pressure

More and more politicians are saying that if Israel doesn't come up with a new initiative real soon, someone else's plan will be jammed down our throats.

livni in turkey 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
livni in turkey 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The heads of the 25 European Union nations will sit down together in Brussels for a periodical summit on December 14 and discuss the EU's "external relations." The Middle East, quite obviously, will top the agenda, and a new Spanish-French-Italian peace initiative will likely be raised. One day prior, on December 13, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will travel to Rome for a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. At that meeting, he will urge Prodi to climb down from the peace-plan tree. Olmert told Prodi as much in a telephone conversation this week, saying that progress with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas was being made, and that European initiatives weren't helpful at this point. The conversation was spurred by the "new mantra" for "new initiatives" and "new plans" on the Middle East. This mantra is being heard in Madrid, where Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos is hatching a new grand design for Middle East peace; in London, where British Prime Minister Tony Blair's rhetoric indicates he believes solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to unlocking world peace; and in Washington, where there are murmurings that one way to get Arab moderates in the region to help the US in Iraq is to show progress - major progress - on the Israeli-Palestinian track. This "new initiative" rage has also made its way to Jerusalem, where more and more politicians are saying that diplomatic nature abhors a vacuum; that we are now being sucked into such a vacuum; and that if Israel doesn't come up with a new initiative real soon, someone else's plan will be jammed down our throats. This kind of thinking, by the way, was very much behind former prime minister Ariel Sharon's decision, in the winter of 2003 - when he returned from a visit to Rome - to unveil a novel idea: disengagement from Gaza. Sharon said on numerous occasions that one of the reasons he felt the need to come up with this plan was to stave off other plans - such as various European ideas and Yossi Beilin's Geneva initiative - that were germinating elsewhere, gaining traction, and in his mind not sufficiently taking into consideration Israel's true strategic interests. Ironically, with Olmert looking over his shoulder this week at the Europeans to see what they would produce, there were reports that his own estranged defense minister, Amir Peretz, was coming up with his own diplomatic initiative to break out of the logjam. So, to paraphrase Binyamin Netanyahu, it is 2003. The Europeans are once again coming up with various ideas, and Peretz is Beilin. BUT WITH everybody talking about plans, and Olmert in public appearances saying that he does indeed have some far reaching ideas, on the ground he and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are engaged in a rearguard action to try to protect the plans - namely the road map and the demand that the PA accept three basic benchmarks - that are already out there. "It is impossible to come out every once in a while with a new plan, just because the Palestinians have not fulfilled the requirements of the previous one," a senior diplomatic official said this week. "If you take that approach, the Palestinians will never have an incentive to honor any commitments, or fulfill any requirements." This, the official said, will be the overarching message Livni will take with her Monday to Finland, where she will participate in a Euro-Med meeting that will bring her face-to-face with a slew of European and Arab foreign ministers. But she will have her work cut out for her. Spain, at the end of October, hosted a conference of the Mediterranean Forum - a consultative body that includes France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Malta, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia - essentially declaring the road map dead. According to assessments from Jerusalem about that conference, the foreign ministers agreed that the road map could not be implemented because the Palestinians could not fulfill the criteria stipulated in the plan's first stage: dismantling the terrorist infrastructure. Furthermore, the ministers agreed, the Israeli position that security must come before anything else was fundamentally wrongheaded. Another position that won the day at that meeting was that the three basic criteria the international community laid down for the PA government before it could be granted legitimacy - recognizing Israel, forswearing terrorism and accepting previous agreements - should not be set in stone, but rather subject to negotiation. Although little attention was paid to what was called the Alicante Declaration, named after the city where the meeting took place, the announcement last week of a new European peace plan did attract attention. This plan, announced by Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, had five points: an immediate cease-fire, formation of a national unity government by the Palestinians that can gain international recognition, an exchange of prisoners, talks between Israel's prime minister and the PA Chairman, and an international mission in Gaza to monitor a cease-fire. While this plan was rejected by Israel, it has not been forgotten, and all diplomatic energy - Olmert's, Livni's and their staffs' - will be spent lobbying world leaders against using this plan, or any permeation of it, to supplant or supplement the road map. One of Israel's arguments against the need to come up with a new Middle East peace initiative is the rejection of a fundamental premise upon which these ideas are based - that there is currently total stagnation. Israeli officials are telling their European counterparts that there is not total stagnation, and that Europe cannot disregard the fact that the sanctions placed on the PA are having an effect - albeit not as rapid an effect as was hoped - and have led to talks between Hamas and Fatah regarding the establishment of a new government. This is movement, they argue, though more glacial than dramatic. According to this argument, coming out with new initiatives now only pulls the rug out from under Abbas, whom the Europeans have said they want to see Israel try to strengthen. Why should Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh negotiate with Abbas over a new government if he has the feeling that the international community, at some point in the near future, will lift the financial siege on Hamas even if Abbas does not accept the three clear benchmarks? Israel's rearguard action is also based on Jerusalem's argument that the ball remains firmly in the Palestinian court. Diplomatic officials make clear in their conversations with their counterparts that the Olmert government has made it known to the international community that Israel would be willing to take huge steps for peace - agreeing to a two-state solution and evacuating settlements - under the right conditions. The argument is that the "right conditions" have not been established, and that the burden of providing these "right conditions" rests with the Palestinians, not with Israel. HERE IS where Israel makes a distinction between leaders like Blair and Zapatero. Blair's position, according to officials in Jerusalem, is that everything is linked, and that what happens in Gaza impacts the streets of Liverpool. For that reason, he is keen on seeing movement. But, the Israeli officials say, Blair is realistic enough to realize that in order for anything to stick, institutions need to be developed on the other side, which would then be able to implement decisions. Blair understands the need for Palestinian capacity-building, and realizes that this takes time. This is one of the reasons the British are behind building up Abbas's presidential guard. Along with capacity-building, Blair also believes that there is a need to provide an overarching diplomatic structure, or horizon, that defines where the process is headed. The Spanish position, on the other hand, is viewed in Jerusalem skeptically, because it is less capacity-building, more horizon; based on what is deemed here as a na ve belief that dialogue will solve all problems, and that since Hamas is not going anywhere, there is a need for negotiations with it that can lead to solutions. The increased clamoring in Europe for initiatives, and presentation of independent ones, comes as no real surprise, Foreign Ministry officials said this week. They said it was expected that that after the war in Lebanon, and summer vacation in Europe, there would be a push for movement. Moratinos, in one of his recent meetings with Livni, was quoted as telling her that the current situation was untenable, and that there was a real need for progress. Her reply was one of wonderment: "You're telling us," she replied. This European impulse for movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track was also the product, according to officials in Jerusalem, of a feeling in Europe of being overwhelmed with so many Middle East problems. Everywhere the Europeans look, foreign ministry officials said, they see a crisis in the Middle East: Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The world cant deal with them all at once, so they choose - for a variety of reasons - to focus on Israel. A high-ranking European politician hinted in talks recently with his Israeli counterparts that if Israel wanted his county's help in dealing with Iran, Jerusalem needed to do "its share" of solving the Palestinian problem. There is just so much the Europeans can handle simultaneously, one diplomatic official in Jerusalem said - just so many balls they can juggle. He said that the Europeans focus on the Israeli-Palestinian ball, rather than the Iranian nuclear one, because this issue is very much on the European agenda and in the European mind. The threat of a nuclear Iran, on the other hand, has not been internalized by the European public. The official said the European public looks at an Iranian nuclear threat the way the Israeli public looks at the North Korean one: remote, theoretical, not immediate. But Israel and the Palestinians are immediate, and give birth to a never-ending impulse to solve the problem, to get it off the agenda. This then generates pressure in Israel to come up with new initiatives, new plans. So far, Olmert has resisted the temptation. So far, he has been telling his counterparts that plans already exist, while assuring them that he would take steps if the Palestinians would only cooperate. The question, however, is how long he - and Israel - will be able to continue resisting.•