President Bush in his Palestinian announcement today pushed down softly on the accelerator of a failed Middle East policy. The President continued to base his policy on deepening the division among Palestinians, on pre-conditions to a two-state solution, and on an unwillingness to outline his own parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian endgame deal. Even the $190 million dollars of money pledged to the new PA government is mostly a repackaging of old commitments.
In most respects today was a rehash of his speech five years ago, albeit under less propitious circumstances. That speech encouraged a regime change that eventually (and one imagines inadvertently) brought Hamas to power – the new speech may well drive Palestinian politics towards a period of even greater chaos that could create a space for al-Qaeda look-a-likes to gain a foothold.
The President continued to mistakenly conflate Hamas with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and, in so doing, almost guarantees the failure of his approach. In Iraq American policy is belatedly focusing on internal political reconciliation, but in Palestine it is still, sadly, all about deepening divisions.
The two-state solution that the President claims to support will need to deliver basic security and have legitimacy on both sides in order to have a chance of being sustainable. That cannot be based on an irreconcilable Palestinian political division. Clearly, there is a discomfort level within the administration regarding this approach as witnessed by the leak from intelligence sources in today’s Washington Post, claiming that relying on Abbas-Fayyad cannot work. The leak came from people, who presumably cautioned against giving this speech.
The President managed to list a full seven Hamas “must do” pre-conditions, rather than the traditional three. Dividing the region into extremists and moderates may sound nice, neat, and tidy in a speech, but on the ground there is a huge grey area that the President apparently refuses to acknowledge. As with elsewhere in the region, this detachment from Palestinian reality makes for bad choices and destabilizing actions.
The one possibly new announcement of a meeting in the Fall to be convened by Secretary Rice actually sounds like little more than a repeat of the London conference on Palestinian reform of January 2003. US officials have admitted that so far none of the neighboring countries have signed up for the conference. Indeed, in his speech, the President outlined four pre-conditions for attendance. One of those – that participants recognize “Israel’s right to exist” will very likely be dropped, or at least massaged, given that not even Egypt and Jordan with their peace treaties with Israel ever accepted this formulation, let alone the Saudis or other Arab States. The President’s ask from the Israeli side is minimal, consisting of realizing previous commitments, including those made on outposts and settlements from a 2004 letter that the US failed to follow up on.
Noteworthy was that even the Fatah-controlled Palestinian TV stations did not carry the speech live, suggesting that they hardly saw this as a great boost to their cause.
President Bush, contrary to the expectations of some optimists, chose not to use this speech to outline his own, more detailed, parameters for a peace deal. He dropped hints regarding the territorial issue, such as “mutually agreed adjustments,” but refused to explicitly refer to the 1967 lines or to offer any guidance on Jerusalem or refugees.
The administration’s commitment to reform and democracy ring even more hollow, given the recent measures taken by the new Ramallah government that they so favor. Military courts have been established in the West Bank to replace civilian courts, a progressive NGO law has been overturned, Hamas-affiliated persons have been imprisoned without due process, and the entire legality of the Ramallah government itself, is questionable.
The Arab states are called upon to make confidence building gestures towards Israel and this is likely to become a fruitless and unrealistic focus of upcoming diplomatic activity.
The President also appears to be flying solo again and eschewing multilateralism. For although he refers to working with the Quartet partners, his approach on dividing the Palestinians is not shared by most EU-states (see last week’s letter of all ten Mediterranean Foreign Ministers), the Russians, and it seems even the UN Secretary-General. Finally, in a hint that bodes ill for Iraq and Lebanon, too, the President makes no attempt to bring Syria into the peace process.
So, it’s more of the same with even less chance of success.