WASHINGTON (Feb. 24)
It’s conventional wisdom: In an election year, keep away from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Middle East helped drive incumbent Presidents Carter and Bush out of office, and President Clinton’s intense last-ditch efforts at the end of his term didn’t help candidate Al Gore.
Like much conventional wisdom, there’s a grain of truth to the maxim. After all, the Middle East is unstable enough to enable the kind of October surprise that could scuttle a presidential bid.
Yet it is that instability that now is driving the Bush administration to turn the conventional wisdom on its head.
With the prospect of Palestinian-populated areas imploding — and the potential for spillover into U.S. efforts in Iraq, not to mention the U.S. presidential race — the Bush administration is renewing its efforts to bring peacemaking in the region forward.
“We fully understand that this conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is the source of a great deal of the anti-American feelings that exist in that part of the world and does affect what we’re doing in Iraq,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate earlier this month.
“And I would do anything to find a magic bullet to solve this one.”
Three of President Bush’s most trusted advisers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict went to Israel last week to make sure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hews to U.S. guidelines in his efforts to disengage from the Palestinians.
The envoys’ Israeli counterparts will soon come to Washington to refine Sharon’s disengagement plan, which includes a settlement withdrawal from Gaza. A Bush-Sharon summit is expected to follow after that, though a date has not been set.
Powell is making clear he wants a full and detailed report from the Israelis.
“We are following closely Mr. Sharon’s proposals of recent weeks about evacuating the settlements in Gaza,” he said. “And what we have said to the Israelis: That’s interesting, we want the settlements closed, we want to know exactly how they’re going to — how that’s going to be done and where will those settlers go, and how does it affect settlement activity in the West Bank. We have to understand the total picture.”
But the three envoys who went to Israel last week — Steve Hadley, the deputy national security adviser; Elliott Abrams, the top Middle East adviser on the National Security Council; and William Burns, the top State Department envoy to the region — are not getting the full picture.
According to Jewish organizational officials in the United States, the Americans are frustrated by differences between Sharon and the man he assigned to handle the planning minutia: Giora Eiland, Sharon’s national security adviser.
Eiland is eager to get things going, while Sharon reportedly wants things to move along at a slower pace. Sharon reportedly believes that the U.S. president has enough on his plate right now given the presidential contest in November and the coming power transition in Iraq, slated for the end of June.
The embarrassing result for the Israelis is that Eiland did not have much to report to Hadley, Abrams and Burns last week.
Sharon’s government reportedly is not worried, believing that Bush understands the conflict will not be resolved overnight. Sharon has been encouraged by Bush and his aides continually laying principal blame for the crisis — and the negotiating stalemate — on the Palestinians.
“It is difficult for us to achieve this goal and to put this kind of pressure on the Israeli side as long as terrorism is seen as a legitimate political act on the part of Palestinians,” Powell told a Princeton University gathering last Friday.
“It is not — it can’t be, not in this post-9/11 age.”
That outlook encourages Israelis to believe that they have time to work things out.
“The timing is fluid,” one Israeli official said. “We’re talking about a process.”
Some Israeli officials are saying there will be no new developments with the Palestinians until the end of the year.
The problem is, as Powell suggested, that the Americans need progress by June 30, when Bush wants to transfer power in Iraq to an Iraqi provisional government. The United States is seeking Arab, European and U.N. support ahead of the transfer, and progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would help.
Consequently, a senior administration official said, the pace of U.S. consultations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is unlikely to flag, because the Americans want results.
One sign of the administration’s dissatisfaction with the current stalemate came when Burns used his visit to make America’s case to the Palestinians. The Israelis had expected an exclusive U.S.-Israel dialogue.
Another factor spurring U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the danger inherent in any unilateral action, such as an Israeli pullout from Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority says it is ready to assume total control in Gaza — with, perhaps, some backing from European peacekeepers. But terrorist groups like Hamas have indicated that they might seek to take over there.
If the Israelis pull out earlier than expected and the Gaza Strip implode into a civil war, it could scuttle whatever credibility the Bush administration has in the region — another incentive for Americans to stay involved in the process.
Powell has made it clear that the Bush administration will oppose using departing Gaza settlers to expand settlements in the West Bank.
The administration already has prodded Israel into rerouting its West Bank security barrier to hew more closely to the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders.
Ehud Olmert, the Cabinet minister who has become a salesman for the Sharon disengagement plan, described U.S.- Israel differences as an “argument” that the Americans would win.
Israel might eventually have to evacuate not only Gaza settlements, but all settlements in the West Bank outside the major Israeli settlement blocs, Olmert suggested in an interview with Israel Radio last Friday.
U.S. officials have said the Palestinians need enough contiguous land for a viable state.
“I believe there needs to be a Palestinian state, and I’m not going to change my opinion,” Bush told Middle East Television Network in an interview the White House published last week.
The Americans are making it clear that backing Sharon’s disengagement plan comes with a condition — that the plan is designed to motivate the Palestinians to fulfill their pledge to fight terrorism and rejoin negotiations. A plan that further isolates the Palestinians is unlikely to do that.
“We are anxious to see Prime Minister Sharon meet with Prime Minister Abu Ala to get this going,” Powell said last Friday, using P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s nom de guerre.
The Americans hope to soon see a Palestinian response to the Gaza withdrawal plan.
Withdrawal from Gaza “is a step in the right direction,” Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, told the U.S.-run Arabic language Radio Salem in a recent interview.
“I hope it would be followed by the Palestinians in turn clamping down once and for all on the instruments of terror.”
Meanwhile, in the absence of details from Sharon on his disengagement plan, Bush administration officials are looking elsewhere — including at unofficial peace proposals like last year’s “Geneva accords” — for an alternative framework to move closer to a resolution of the conflict.
Several negotiators who helped frame last year’s non-binding Geneva Accords met here recently with senior congressional and administration officials.
The negotiators liked what they heard, especially when Powell told the Senate that the Geneva plan “really is consistent with the third phase of the road map.”
“The comments of the secretary of state are exactly our message,” Ghaith Al-Omari, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, said.
Until now, the road map’s “third phase” — the final status — had been vague; in his Senate testimony, Powell effectively likened it to a plan that essentially returns Israel to the 1967 lines.
That puts pressure on Sharon — who reviles the Geneva proposal — to come up with details of his own.
With the Iraq deadline looming and U.S. presidential elections around the corner, Sharon doesn’t have much time.