Like barkers at a carnival, U.S. officials are promising a winning outcome to Israel-Palestinian talks — it’s just that the prize gets smaller as the game proceeds.
Back in July President Bush was expressing hopes for a “final peace” in the Middle East. This week a top U.S. official spoke instead of “controlled expectations.”
“We think that any effort in rebuilding a real dialogue leading to what we hope will eventually be negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that they both would like has to rest on a bilateral process that’s productive for the interests of both parties,” David Welch, the top State Department envoy to the region, said Monday at a briefing. “We think that the region is receptive to that, and we think the international community is expectant of that.
“I know that expectations are controlled about these possibilities,” he continued, “and that’s not unreasonable under the circumstances because it has not been an easy year to rebuild these bilateral contacts. But where we started is certainly a lot different than where we are today.”
Welch’s briefing came two days before he was to travel with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region to prepare for the November summit, likely to take place in the United States.
In July, when Bush announced his plans for the summit, he signaled that its success would depend on a breakthrough in Arab recognition of Israel that would come “by ending the fiction that Israel does not exist, stopping the incitement of hatred in their official media and sending Cabinet-level visitors to Israel.”
Lawmakers are circulating a letter, initiated by U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), urging Rice to insist that Arab nations meet those requirements in order to attend the summit.
The letter, backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, states: “Your ongoing efforts to work with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are critical, but so is the support these efforts receive from those Arab countries.”
It sets out conditions for participation in the summit, including recognizing Israel, helping to fund Abbas, stopping support for anti-Israel terrorism and incitement, ending the Arab League boycott of Israel and pressuring Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, to recognize Israel and end its terrorism.
Welch’s description of what the Bush administration expected from Arab participants was considerably less specific.
“I think people have to be devoted to peace, and that’s a key drawing line,” he said. “But, you know, there’s a lot of comment about the international meeting out there already, saying what it is not or should not be. It’s better to try and construct something that’s positive, and we will in due course have those things to say.”
Welch would not commit to any surprise guests.
“To the degree we know where the parties are, we can better see how to use an international event of this type,” he said. “We may have more to say on that during the course of our visit” this week.
Welch also downplayed the significance of the attendance of the Saudis or any other Arab nation that has yet to recognize Israel, noting that such attendance would not be unprecedented — the Saudis had a presence at the 1991 Madrid talks.
Yet that presence was at the ambassador level; Israelis were hoping the Saudis would send a Cabinet minister to the upcoming talks, creating the political capital that would be necessary to secure public support for an expansive land for peace deal.
The carrot for such a presence was the $20 billion in arms sales to the Saudis and their neighbors that Bush has agreed to but Congress has yet to approve. If the Saudis seem less than enthusiastic about a peace summit, that could lead to tough congressional oversight of the sale.
Welch acknowledged that as the November summit loomed, it seemed more daunting.
“It will be hard to organize that, to make that contribution in just two months,” he said.
The effort is intensifying, he suggested. After Rice returns, she will attend the launch next week of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York. There will be two separate sessions for the Quartet, the grouping of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia that guides the peace process. Additionally, the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, the Norway-chaired group of nations that funds the Palestinians, will meet for the first time in nearly two years.
One sign that progress isn’t going as well as the Americans would like: Rice will meet separately with Abbas and Olmert.
A delegation from the American Task Force on Palestine that returned from the region last week reported that the traditional differences dogged the pre-negotiation talks: Palestinians wanted details, officials of the moderate group said, while the Israelis want “constructive ambiguity” that would keep them from being pinned down to a peace plan should it prove unpopular.
Palestinians are waiting impatiently for Olmert to make good on his pledge to ease movement in the West Bank. They also want to see if the prime minister fulfills his promise to remove unauthorized settlements. Israeli officials say this will occur “after the Jewish holidays” — a euphemism in Israel’s political culture for “sometime.”
Israel, for its part, wants to see how serious — and capable — Abbas and his new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, are when it comes to controlling terrorism.
Additionally, Abbas no longer controls the Gaza Strip — his divorce from Hamas there is what led Bush to push the summit idea and Israel to re-establish relations with the Palestinian Authority. But if Hamas continues to allow missile attacks on Israeli territory, that could scuttle Israeli popular support for a deal, however much Abbas distances himself from the terrorist group.
There are signs that Abbas and his government are committed to controlling security, at least in the West Bank. Fayyad appears committed to restoring law and order, Western observers in the region say, making sure Palestinian police patrol neighborhoods and maintain a presence outside schools. The Palestinian prime minister has also sacked 250 imams and shut down 110 charities affiliated with Hamas.
Western officials say moderates face an uphill climb in Gaza, where Hamas offers better salaries and better equipment to its militias.
The $80 million the Bush administration has committed to train P.A. security forces is on the ground, sources say, and international experts are set to implement programs designed by a U.S.-led team. Welch said one anti-terrorism course already has been completed.
“There’s some anti-terrorism training being organized for certain units of the Palestinian security forces, ” he said. “I think one cadre of those people have actually graduated already from that training course, and there are follow-ons to that.”