Power & Politics: Memo to Mrs. Merkel - think trusteeship

The illusion of momentum isn't a good enough reason to reinvigorate the Quartet's involvement.

bush merkel 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
bush merkel 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her capacity as current head of the European Union, is back in Berlin after a lightning visit to the White House, where she obtained President George W. Bush's agreement to revive Quartet involvement in what is euphemistically known as the Middle East peace process. The Quartet, you will recall, is comprised of the US, the EU, Russia, and the UN. Bush said it was a "good idea" to convene the Quartet. Merkel added that it would help in achieving a two-state solution if the US and EU "speak with one and the same voice." Preempting the "why now" question, the chancellor opined: "I simply think that we ought to try time and again to achieve some sort of results in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Merkel has a lot on her plate. In addition to her national and EU responsibilities she's also currently chair of the G-8. But the Middle East is high on her agenda. In February she's scheduled to visit Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. WITH PALESTINIAN factions killing each other in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank, the steadfastly rejectionist Hamas controlling the government and President Mahmoud Abbas as politically impotent as ever, Merkel's desire to go down the Quartet's road map path again strikes me as worse than futile. To get a better handle on what's driving the chancellor to breathe new life into this plan, I asked Emory University political scientist Christian Tuschhoff in Berlin. Tuschhoff answered that Merkel's government (her Christian Democrats had to enter into a coalition with the rival Social Democratic Party) is unpopular and desperate for a success - and it's unlikely to come on the domestic front. So Merkel, wisely, is turning to foreign policy, exploiting Germany's leadership of both the EU and G-8. Tuschhoff accepts that her foreign policy agenda won't produce more than "a high profile on television," given the intractability of the problems she's confronting. This is true, incidentally, not only on the Arab-Israel front but also on energy issues, security and the moribund EU constitution. Which is why, he said, no one really expects results from the revived Quartet. So why bother? "Germans think it is better to have the process going than no effort at all. If the Quartet can reengage Israel and the Palestinians, they believe this will divert their activities from armed conflict." GERMANS SEE themselves as uniquely qualified to help reconcile Israelis and Palestinians. Berlin has the respect of both sides and is thought of as having the most balanced stance within the EU. Political culture also plays a role: Tuschhoff argues that "reconciliation is a key trait of German foreign policy generally." As a further domestic explanation of Germany's efforts to revive the Quartet, another source in Berlin suggested that policy on the Arab-Israel conflict was partially driven by the close cooperation between Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and a government-funded foreign policy think tank called Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP). The director of SWP, Volker Pertes, seems able to influence government decision-making. Some of Steinmeier's initiatives - reaching out to Syria, for instance - are traceable to Pertes's influence, my source said. BEYOND DOMESTIC drives, the international arena also offers clues to Merkel's Quartet-revival initiative. From the EU's point of view, the Arab-Israel conflict is key to regional stability, political scientist Tuschhoff explained. To create a sense of policy consistency and follow-through, Merkel is coordinating her approach with Portugal and Slovenia, respectively scheduled to follow Germany's six-month EU presidency. Moreover, if Merkel can demonstrate that she has genuine influence with the Bush White House, Berlin's weight within the EU can only increase. EU members are supposed to pursue their foreign policy goals exclusively within the EU framework, Tuschhoff explained. And the Quartet is the best channel through which the EU can exert a role in our region. It's not clear whether Germany embraces the latest French call for an international peace conference. But Berlin and Paris closely coordinate their foreign policy initiatives. "It would surprise me if France issued a proposal without prior consultation with Germany and possibly German approval," Tuschhoff said. As we concluded our exchange, Tuschhoff ventured a speculation: "The key [to solving the conflict] is to educate the Palestinian side to act with much greater responsibility and move them away from jihad and terrorism. "If some international recognition or venue can achieve that 'civilizing' effect on radical Palestinian factions, it should be tried." THE QUARTET'S contribution to Arab-Israel conflict resolution is the 2002-2003 road map for peace. As the State Department describes it, "The plan is a performance-based, goal-driven plan, with clear phases, timelines, and benchmarks. It involves reciprocal steps by the two parties in the political, security, economic, and humanitarian fields. The destination is a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict." The road map's first phase called for ending terrorism and normalizing Palestinian life. The Palestinians were to end all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere. Jerusalem was to commit itself to a sovereign Palestinian state living alongside Israel, which prime minister Ariel Sharon did. Among other things, Israel also committed to freeze all settlement activity and dismantle outposts not authorized by the government. But Israeli officials have long argued that implementation of the road map is contingent on the Palestinians taking concrete steps to dismantle the terror infrastructure. Since that never happened, neither did much else. If anything, since the road map evolved the situation on the ground has gotten only more complicated. In January 2006, Hamas - which rejects the very idea of living in peace alongside a sovereign Jewish state - won the Palestinian parliamentary elections. Since then the Palestinian polity has fragmented owing to outside pressure - to shed its rejectionist stance - and internal political cleavages. Today anarchy reigns, with violent clans and splinter groups carrying as much weight as the main terrorist organizations. It is against this background that Merkel wants to revive the Quartet - as if the Palestinians were capable of agreeing among themselves on a course of action; as if a deal cut with Mahmoud Abbas would hold water with the Islamists; as if the fundamental political culture of Palestinian society, which viscerally rejects accommodation with Israel, could be swept under the rug. IF MRS. MERKEL wants to do more than engage in the illusion of momentum - and reconvening an international peace conference under the current conditions would be just that - she must have the courage to lead the EU in a radically new direction. To that end, I direct her attention to Martin S. Indyk's "A Trusteeship for Palestine?" in the May 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs. We can dispute the details with Indyk (and his scenario anyway needs updating). But the principle that the Palestinian polity desperately needs an invasive "re-socialization" remains key. Merkel should accept that a prerequisite for Palestinian statehood is creating an institutional framework (political, educational and security) that fosters representative government, centrist politics and pluralism. Can this be done in the Arab context, post-Iraq? What roles should Jordan and Egypt play? What sacrifices would Israel have to make to create the right atmosphere? These are worthwhile questions that Merkel will need to grapple with assuming she can get first the EU and then the Quartet to make the major philosophical leap of abandoning the road-map illusion that the Palestinians are ready for statehood and investing, instead, in an approach that aims to prepare them to join the family of nations - trusteeship.