Washington Watch: Waltz of the lame ducks

Rice is pressing all parties to remain engaged through the campaigns and transition so they can build something for the new administrations to pick up on.

Rice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Rice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In the twilight of their political careers, it is difficult to take George W. Bush, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas very seriously when they talk about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by the end of the year. Don't look for a dramatic "October surprise" to come out of the closed-door negotiations because none of the three leaders is strong enough to win approval for any agreement. Olmert has already announced his resignation and may be facing criminal charges; Abbas presides over only half of the Palestinian areas on a good day; and, unlike the other two, Bush wasn't deeply committed to the peace talks enough to do the essential heavy lifting needed to get the other two over the toughest hurdles. All three face homegrown opposition to the peace negotiations: Olmert from the nationalist camp and settlers, Abbas from the Islamists and Bush from the neocons and evangelicals. And those aren't the only obstacles. CORRUPTION HAS corroded Abbas' Fatah and has brought down Olmert. "Greed," said a former State Department official, "is a major enemy of peace in the Middle East, not just nationalistic or religious passions." Olmert has said agreements with the Palestinians and Syrians are "closer than ever" and he said his lame duck status won't get in the way of pursuing them, but the police, prosecutors and voters may have other plans. The United States and Israel are engaged in political campaigns that will shape both nations' approach to peacemaking over the next several years. When Bush moved into the Oval Office nearly eight years ago, he was promising to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and determined to avoid following his two predecessors into the Mideast peace quagmire. Neither happened. The Clinton administration had been on the verge of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. With less than a month until leaving office, President Clinton presented his "ideas" for a settlement and told both sides "if either could not accept the ideas, they would be withdrawn and would leave with him when he left office," according to his top negotiator, Dennis Ross. Barak agreed, but Arafat opted instead for another Intifada. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wants to avoid that kind of setback and keep the process alive despite the political turmoil and transition in all three places. She publicly insists "there is still time" to reach an agreement this year, but her real goal is getting both sides to put in writing the progress they've made so far. This so-called shelf agreement could then serve as a starting point when new leadership is ready to resume talks. But she faces opposition from the White House. According to published reports, Elliot Abrams, the National Security Council's chief for Mideast policy, told a group of Jewish leaders recently that any progress in the current secret talks led by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, are strictly between the two of them and not between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. LIVNI IS a leading candidate to replace Olmert as head of the ruling Kadima party and prime minister, and is committed to pursuing the talks with the Palestinians. If, however, there are early elections and opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu wins, he has indicated negotiations are more likely to go into the freezer than on to the shelf. President Bush launched this round of negotiations at Annapolis last November when he set a goal of a peace agreement and Palestinian statehood by the time he left office, but his spokespeople have since scaled that back to producing an "outline" of steps needed "to move forward." There will be new leaders all around; Abbas has said he wouldn't run for reelection when elections are held in 2009 or 2010. He also has reportedly threatened to resign unless there's an agreement by the end of the year, but he won't. The challenge facing the lame duck leaders is to leave something for their successors to build on or risk setting the process back another eight years. The Israelis and Palestinians say they are close on many issues - with the notable exception of Jerusalem - but no peace agreement is possible as long as there are two Palestines, one that wants peace but can't deliver and another that could deliver but isn't interested. Rice may have little support from the White House but she is on the right track, pressing the parties to remain engaged through the political campaigns and transition so they can build something for the new administrations to pick up on. The alternative would play into the hands of Palestinian extremists like Hamas who preach that the only way to build a state is through the kind of violence they claim drove Israel out of Lebanon and Gaza. It is up to three lame ducks to make sure that doesn't happen.