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Rice, Gaza and Annapolis: what next?

Secretary Rice’s latest Middle East trip has drawn to a close and she is now heading back to Washington via Brussels.  On being told by a reporter at a press conference in Ramallah that this was her 13th visit and asked whether she was bringing anything new, Condi responded that thirteen is not a lucky number so maybe she needed to come back again.  Maybe the latest round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the lack of progress in advancing either peace talks or improvements to daily life is just a case of bad luck and the superstitious spell of the number 13.  Or maybe the application of misguided policies and the framing of a peace process in terms of good versus evil and the exclusion of the very people who are needed to secure a deal might just have something to do with it.  

The question is, coming out of another Rice Mid-East jaunt, whether anything is being done to reframe that policy.  In public, at least, the evidence is scant or even non-existent.  In meetings with her Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors, Secretary Rice stressed the need to return to peace negotiations.  She apparently pushed sufficiently hard on this front that Palestinian President Abbas dropped his one day old conditioning of renewed negotiations on a truce, a gesture likely to further erode his already waning domestic popularity. This can either be notched up as an American diplomatic achievement or seen for what it is, irrelevant.  Here’s why.  

The negotiating teams, led on the Israeli side by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and on the Palestinian side PLO stalwart Abu Ala, have been meeting on a bi-weekly basis.  There have been at least 25 meetings since Annapolis including five between the two leaders, Abbas and Olmert.  But those negotiations, even if they are serious as the participants claim, have not so far and are unlikely in the near future to produce results.  The current reality and framing of the peace process almost guarantees its failure.  A deteriorating security situation in Gaza and the neighboring Israeli towns undermines the public legitimacy of the negotiations on both sides.  As Palestinian civilian casualties mount with every escalation, the capacity for Abbas to continue negotiating with an Israeli partner that is causing such destruction in Gaza, is severely limited.  That is what happened this past week when Abbas suspended talks.  Likewise, as rockets are fired into southern Israel, Olmert comes under increasing pressure domestically to not make concessions in the peace process. And neither leader was exactly riding a wave of political strength and popularity to begin with.  

The lack of movement regarding easing of conditions of Palestinian daily life in the West Bank further erodes the credibility of Abbas, Fayyad and their government.  In this political environment, where any negotiations with Israel will be attacked not only for their content but also because of the political context in which they are being conducted and with the belief that anything agreed would anyway not be implemented, Abbas is in no position to strike a deal.  Not only Hamas, but many if not the majority within Fatah and certainly the populist national camp, would oppose it.  Under these circumstances even if, and it’s a big if, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could cut a decent deal, it would have little legitimacy or prospect of being implemented, and paradoxically could become a set back for the very two-state solution that it would purport to be advancing.  

The negotiations crisis is the wrong crisis for the US to focus on, even if this is understandable given that the negotiations are pretty much all the administration has in its terribly depleted Middle East peace policy toolbox. The best hope would be that what we are hearing in public is not exactly the same as the message that was conveyed by Secretary Rice in private.  If Rice has conveyed to those she met in Egypt, Israel and to the Quartet partners and other Arab allies that the US unequivocally favors a ceasefire and security de-escalation then there might be something to work with in rescuing Annapolis.  

First and foremost that would require a different approach to Hamas.  This change need not be declarative at first, it could evolve over time and be mediated by third parties.  One could envisage a de-escalation followed by a formal ceasefire understanding, prisoner exchanges and the significant easing of conditions in the Gaza Strip.  In a poll cited in last week’s Haaretz 64 percent of Israelis express their preference for ceasefire negotiations with Hamas.  Egypt could broker these arrangements, ideally not alone but with European and other Arab involvement and with a clear American green light.  A better alternative would be for Abbas to secure the truce between Israel and Gaza/Hamas as he offered to do last week.  Although this seems unlikely under the current internal Palestinian political conditions, ultimately a Palestinian national dialogue will have to be re-launched and new domestic understandings reached.  Such steps would then create the conditions that would again make peace negotiations relevant and would be conducive to progress on the negotiations track.     

Of course this scenario may not be achievable.  Too many of the region’s significant actors, including Syria and Iran, may have simply decided to wait and sit out this US administration, and encourage existing conflicts to simmer as bargaining chips with the next US government.  The alternatives though are either distinctly unattractive or decidedly unrealistic; an Israeli re-occupation of the Gaza Strip, Fatah retaking Gaza on the back of IDF tanks, or the deployment of an international force at a time when NATO is desperately scrambling to meet troop targets in Afghanistan.  The most likely trajectory is that all sides will simply await the next escalation, that will inevitably come, and that the new Annapolis peace process will suffer a slow and inglorious death.  If Secretary Rice starts whispering the magic words—ceasefire and openness to a shift on Hamas—then this can be avoided.  It might also be prevented, in the absence of such whispers, by the remaining Quartet members and other international actors, including in the Arab world, stepping up their involvement at least with regards to the ceasefire and the aversion of a further humanitarian disaster.

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Comments (3)

Floss:

You want Secretary of State Rice to call for a cease-fire and talks with Hamas political chief, Khaled Mash'al, who has joined in with his counterpart, Hezbollah's Hasan Nasrallah calling for Worldwide warfare on Jews and their business's?
Whose side are you on, anyway? Floss

Renfro:

Well I am tired of the Israeli bull***.

Who will rid America of the Israeli sickness? It's going to take a US leader who will do more than call their illegal expansions "unhelpful".


10/03/2008


UN Chief, U.S. urge Israel to halt plans to build in W. Bank settlements

By The Associated Press

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday urged Israel to halt plans to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Ban's spokeswoman said.

"The secretary-general calls on the government of Israel to halt settlement expansion and reiterates that the fulfillment of road map [peace plan] obligations by both parties is an important measure underpinning the political process between them," Ban's spokeswoman, Michel Montas, said in a statement.

"Any settlement expansion is contrary to Israel's obligations under the road map and to international law," Montas said.
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On Sunday, the Housing Ministry said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had approved the renewed construction an estimated 750 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze'ev near Jerusalem.

The project approved for the Agan Ayelot neighborhood of Givat Ze'ev drew criticism from the Palestinian Authority over Israel's commitment to the peace process.

The prime minister's spokesman Mark Regev, however, said the project was in line with the state's current policy on construction in the major settlement blocs.

"The project was approved by previous governments, and Olmert approved its resumption because it meshes with government policy," he said.

The Bush administration said Monday that Israel's plan for expanded Jewish housing does not help the progress of U.S.-backed peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Monday at the State Department with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Rice told reporters U.S. policy on expansion of settlements in disputed areas is well-known, and it is important to keep the atmosphere positive.

Earlier, her spokesman had called Sunday's announcement of future settlement expansion unhelpful. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted that Rice had spoken to Defense Minister Ehud Barak twice in two days.

The British Foreign Office spokesperson also issued a response Monday, saying that "we are concerned by reports that Israel plans to build in the settlement of Givat Ze'ev. We have raised our concerns about these latest reports with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and stressed that we see this as unhelpful - particularly when Israelis and Palestinians should be focusing on full implementation of their obligations under phase one of the Roadmap, which include freezing all settlement activity, including natural growth."


Joe:

How many more failed peace accords and futile cease-fires does Israel have to partake in before you realize your folly? Israel has already tried the path of peace. Have you forgotten about Oslo? Don't you realize that Iran has other goals in mind besides 'peace' and so does Hamas? Only fools repeat their mistakes and I hope Israel does not repeat its mistakes, because the results of such mistakes evolves into the round of terrorist attacks that Israel faced post Oslo - several years worth. I'm sorry to have to tell this to you, but naivety will not create peace.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 5, 2008 12:15 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

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