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What to Make of Rice's Latest Mid-East Visit

Condoleezza Rice has just completed her 11th visit to the Middle East in 15 months and her 3rd trip since the Annapolis Conference.

As Glenn Kessler pointed out in yesterday’s Washington Post, time is running out on this Administration and the Secretary of State’s unfinished tasks list is a dauntingly long one. Given the primacy accorded to Annapolis and the time and travel invested, the Israeli-Palestinian process would appear to assume pride of place.

The Annapolis season is scheduled to last one year, but with four months gone, the scorecard makes for predictably depressing reading. Economic conditions and freedom of movement in the West Bank have, if anything, deteriorated; settlements are expanding and not a single outpost has gone; Israelis and Palestinians are less secure. Both leaders – Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen are still alive politically (and that admittedly was not a given) but both are still in a precariously fragile state.

Belief in the process barely registers with either public. Still the Administration continues to tout its goal of a breakthrough agreement by years-end, the president will visit in May and Rice even notched up some minor progress on this trip. So where do things stand and what are the prospects?

Here are five comments on the latest developments:

1 – One Step Forward, Two Steps…

The one deliverable from the Rice visit came from a trilateral meeting attended by, in addition to the Secretary herself, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyed. This produced an agreement on “concrete steps to implement the Roadmap. This is a program that will improve the daily lives of Palestinians and help make Israel secure [. . .] Prime Minister Fayyad and Defense Minister Barak agreed on points of special, immediate emphasis and work.”

Those steps are detailed in a one page document released by the State Department that includes Israeli commitments to ease certain movement restrictions, to allow additional Palestinian security deployments, building authorizations and economic projects. None of this is new. Similar commitments have been made before by Israel to the US and PA and were reneged on. To even squeeze this list out of MoD Barak was an achievement given the spoiler role he has assumed since returning to Government, and this time Secretary Rice promised “a more systematic approach [. . .] to monitoring and verifying.”

The Catch 22 is that absent either a political deal or real change in the security environment (such as a comprehensive ceasefire with Hamas) – and the two are connected - the Israeli security default position translates into constant back-sliding on all these issues (justified or otherwise that is the reality). 

Take a closer look at that package produced in honor of the Secretary’s visit:

There are now 580 obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement in the tiny area of the West Bank, more than at the time of Annapolis and about 30 more than at this time last year.  Barak committed to removing 50, net change +/- 20 and that is if all is implemented and there is no slippage.

Barak agreed to allow PA security deployment in Jenin, with restrictions, and some new measures on security coordination. Nice, but the last town that received such treatment was Nablus and in that experiment the IDF continued ongoing military operations that undermined the PA security efforts and deeply embarrassed the PA leadership. This latest very public announcement will do nothing to stem the tide of internal Palestinian criticism that increasingly depicts the PA as a puppet of Israel. That impression is further enhanced when Israel announces that it will allow the transfer of certain arms and armored vehicles to the PA.  Sometimes it is better to shut up. 

The third basket of commitments was described as follows:

“The two sides approved in concept the development of new housing in the West Bank for Palestinians [. . .] Master Plans for 25 Palestinian villages in Area C have been approved.”

Nothing like this particular snippet to remind Palestinians just how much Israel still controls their lives and just about everything in the West Bank – and just how limited the mandate of the PA is.

The final treat in this festive Easter egg of goodies – economic projects – “Both sides have agreed to create a major new industrial park in Tarqumiya” and to hold an “investment conference in Bethlehem”. To anyone who has followed the last decade and a half of peace-processing this will sound tragically familiar. Industrial Park plans existed before (for example, a 90 million dollar project called the Gaza Industrial Estate and joint government of Israel-PA plan for industrial parks in Jenin, Sha'ar Ephraim, Erez and Karni crossings, and Jericho) and stranger than strange none of them ever seem to materialize. Would it be too mean-spirited to suggest that occupation, attendant insecurity and unpredictability and undefined borders simply do not provide the best climate for investor confidence or business success?!

And yes, that would be the same Bethlehem where Israel conducted a recent extra-judicial killing of four Palestinians that saw the largest protests that city can remember – ‘welcome to happy, holy Bethlehem’.

It all sounds rather reminiscent of the Access and Movement Agreement negotiated by Secretary Rice in November 2005 and ignored by everyone else ever since.

To give some credit, I think Rice has little faith that this list of action items will produce meaningful change – one of the successes of her recent diplomacy was to de-link day-to-day issues from negotiations and to recognize the limited potential of improvements on the ground absent real political progress. Rice had to produce something, Barak was willing to throw together this pick’n’mix menu, the PA could at least point to something and everyone settled for what they could get.

If these measures at least put a brake on the slide to an even worse West Bank situation then that too is an achievement, though the announcements of new Israeli settlement expansion literally hours after the Secretary’s departure was hardly a good omen.

2 – How Many Generals Does It Take To Move A Checkpoint?

The US now has three generals deployed on the Israeli-Palestinian front as envoys with varying mandates and responsibilities. General Dayton oversees Palestinian security sector reform and cooperation, General Jones looks at regional security issues in the context of a prospective future peace deal, and General Fraser has perhaps the most thankless task – verifying the implementation of all those Roadmap commitments – including the new laundry list from this visit. All three are dedicated and respected professionals but their parallel missions do not enhance their chances of success.  The question for Secretary Rice is whether this latest mission served to strengthen or fatally undermine her new Special Envoy Lt. General William Fraser? About two and a half weeks ago Fraser convened his first trilateral meeting on Roadmap implementation – the Palestinian PM Fayyad showed up, but Israeli MD Barak skipped the meeting and sent the senior Defense Ministry strategist General Amos Gilad. It was impossible to pretend that this was not a slap in the face to the new US mission and Envoy from Mr. Ehud  Barak.

During this trip the Secretary of State convened a trilateral meeting – and lo and behold Barak found time to grace the occasion with his presence.

One of two things is happening here – either Barak has now set his bar for being there at nothing less than the Secretary level (with the corresponding impact on General Fraser’s standing and ability to function), or Ms. Rice introduced Mr. Barak to her new Envoy and expressed the expectation that the two gentlemen would be seeing rather a lot of each other in the near future. Someone should ask Condi which it is. 

3 – Where are those peace negotiations at?

The other trilateral meeting on the Secretary’s schedule during this visit brought her together with the heads of the respective negotiating teams who are working for a framework agreement, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on the Israeli side and her PLO counterpart, Abu Ala.

Peace negotiations do not lend themselves to progress reports, half-time updates or latest scores, so in that respect the Secretary having nothing to announce was absolutely understandable and the act of sitting with and hearing from both sides was a good move. My sources tell me that these negotiations are serious, the ground being covered is significant and both sides are adopting a constructive, problem-solving approach.

At the same time, precious few people on the Israeli or Palestinian sides actually expect a deal to be reached. There is no contradiction here – with negotiations it ain’t over til it’s over and if the negotiations collapse over a 1% disagreement or a 90% disagreement the end result is the same.

I would argue that the dis-connect here is not related to the sincerity of the negotiators but rather to the environment or context in which those negotiations are taking place and the lack of anything other than an artificial deadline.

The need to take a fresh look at that surrounding environment – political division on the Palestinian side, Gaza, regional divisions, Syria, etc. is where Administration policy still comes up short in ways that are likely to ultimately defeat the Annapolis effort.

4 – Remember Gaza?

Gaza was barely mentioned by the Secretary, at least in official comments, during this trip. That may be a good thing. The rhetorical platitudes that tend to accompany any reference to the Gaza situation are not helpful. They were fleetingly mentioned, with Rice arguing that the democratically elected Hamas government “holds the people hostage,” but on this visit such statements were the exception not the rule. Perhaps the Administration is allowing or even encouraging the quiet, Egyptian-led work with all the parties – Israel, the PA, and Hamas – aimed at building on the current de-escalation in order to create a sustainable ceasefire.

Probably the best way to improve the prospects for the peace talks would be to improve the security situation for both peoples and re-establish a degree of national dialogue, agreed rules of the game and ultimately unity on the Palestinian side. That will require a locked-in ceasefire at least for Gaza and probably for the West Bank as well, which in turn necessitates not only an end to shooting but also arrangements for border crossings to open and efforts to prevent weapons smuggling. Obviously this requires the engagement, indirectly via third parties, of Hamas. 

In addition efforts need to be re-launched at talks for a Hamas-Fatah understanding and seen through to a successful conclusion. The Yemenis have recently acted as a go-between but internal Fatah disagreements are not only derailing that effort but also further tarnishing Fatah’s credibility. Playing for time is not helping Fatah. Abbas may not be keen on unity talks but the apparent continuation of the US (and Israeli) veto of intra-Palestinian talks is crucial and it is a failed policy that actually undermines the likelihood of achievement in a peace process to which both sides are at least outwardly committed, and not the opposite as claimed.

5 – A Region-In-Waiting

There is a price to pay for getting serious on an Israeli-Palestinian peace effort not on day one of an administration but only after day 2,500Part of that price is that much of the Middle East has already written off this Administration and is in a holding pattern awaiting the successor.  And that will be another strike against the administration’s last gasp peace effort.  Those actors in the region who the Bush Administration discourages anyone from engaging with would probably not be amenable anyway to any new policy opening at this late date.  But even the Administration’s allies are unlikely to go out on a limb and to make a serious effort to be helpful especially given that there would be a domestic political price to pay.   

So, What Next?

If the current intensification of diplomacy continues over the next months and prevents a further deterioration of the situation on the ground and maintains a ceasefire then, maybe there will be no grand peace ceremony, but something positive would still have been achieved.   If, in addition, the negotiations continue and this Administration hands over to its successor an ongoing process then there would certainly be no shame in that.  The idea that an administration takes its Middle East peace process home with it, as the Clinton Administration did, should not be continued. Under the current circumstances a Hail Mary peace process pass in ‘08 could well do more harm than good.

One could of course change those circumstances by shifting policy to actively promote a ceasefire, encourage Palestinian internal reconciliation not division, engage Syria, build real region support and apply real elbow grease to reach closure on a political deal...well it is April Fool’s Day.    

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Daniel Levy

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 1, 2008 6:47 PM.

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