Condoleezza Rice may not have brought any new peace plan with her, but the U.S. secretary of state came to the Middle East in mid-January with two big ideas: finding a formula that can make Israeli-Palestinian negotiations work and unifying moderate Arab states around America’s leadership.
The two ideas are not unconnected. Moderates like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia can help take the Israeli-Palestinian process forward, while an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation would help consolidate the Arab world’s moderate camp.
And while they don’t say so explicitly, U.S. officials believe progress on one or both tracks would help America’s exit strategy from Iraq.
A breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian track will not be easy. The “road map” peace plan, which sets out the basic principles for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, has been stuck at square one for nearly four years. Rice also will have to find a way around the Palestinians’ radical, Hamas-led government, which rejects any thought of peace with Israel.
The main thrust of Rice’s visit was to explore possible solutions to both problems. On the road map, the new thinking is to break the deadlock by discussing all three of its stages simultaneously rather than sequentially.
As for the Hamas-led Palestinian government, the plan is to continue to do everything possible to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah movement politically and militarily. During their meeting Sunday in Ramallah, Rice promised Abbas $85 million to train and arm forces loyal to him.
Rice attaches so much importance to the Israeli-Palestinian track that she has decided to deal with it personally.
“The secretary has the Israeli-Palestinian issue in her sights for the duration of the term,” a senior U.S. official told JTA.
To get things moving, Rice plans to visit the region about once a month for the next few months. The next time probably will be to participate in a three-way summit with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. That could mark the public beginning of substantive negotiations on an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
Both Israel and the United States had hoped to move toward the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state in temporary borders within the next two years. That would have enabled the Americans to claim a major Mideast achievement before the end of President Bush’s second term, the Israelis to withdraw from most of the West Bank as part of an agreement with the Palestinians and the Palestinians to start running a state of their own.
But Abbas fears that any provisional borders he agrees to may prove to be final. Instead he suggests that the two sides bypass the road map through secret talks on a final peace deal. In that way, talks could continue regardless of the level of violence on the ground or moves made by the Hamas-led P.A. government.
The Israelis and Americans are skeptical about the possibility of reaching a final peace deal in one fell swoop. Instead they propose discussing all aspects of the road map simultaneously, including the interim Palestinian state and the final deal, moving to establish the provisional state only after agreement has been reached on final-status principles.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni long has favored an approach in which final-status issues are settled first. In her view the key issue for Israel is to ensure that Palestinian refugees return to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel proper.
The Palestinians, too, have always advocated prior agreement on the contours of a final settlement to allay their fears that an interim settlement would become permanent.
Until now, Israel has insisted that the road map be implemented sequentially, as intended. In other words, the Palestinians would have to dismantle terrorist militias in line with the demands of stage one before the parties moved on to subsequent stages. The plan was written that way to accommodate Israeli concerns that the Palestinians, as in past negotiations, would insist on fresh Israeli concessions while ignoring their commitments to crack down on terrorism.
The idea of reversing the road map order was first mooted publicly in a new peace plan drawn up in late November by the dovish Meretz Party leader Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo process and one of the leaders of the informal 2003 Geneva peace initiative.
Beilin says the response from Israeli and Palestinian leaders was enthusiastic.
“I didn’t get a signature from anyone, but I think it can be the bridging formula,” Beilin told JTA.
Livni, who says she has a peace plan of her own but has yet to go public with it, seems ready to adopt something like the Beilin model. According to informed sources, it would include a preliminary stage in which Israel helps strengthen Abbas as a negotiating partner by making goodwill gestures and bringing moderate Arab states like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia into the picture.
Then there would be understandings on final-status issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem, followed by a coordinated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian mini-state whose borders would hew to Israel’s West Bank security barrier.
At some point the Palestinian Authority would hold new elections, so that the last push on final-status negotiations hopefully would be with a Fatah-led Palestinian government that had a mandate to make peace.
The Palestinians will want a U.S. guarantee that an Israeli withdrawal to provisional borders will be followed by a further withdrawal to permanent boundaries. However, Israeli leaders have hinted that there will not be much flexibility beyond the route of the security barrier, which already gives nearly all of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
Much will depend on Hamas. Will the radicals allow Abbas to make progress in negotiations with Israel under American auspices, or will they resort to violence to torpedo a political outcome that doesn’t suit them? And if they take the violent route, will a rearmed Fatah have the military strength — or political will — to take them on?
That’s where the funding for troops loyal to Abbas comes in. Bush administration officials plan to take their $85 million request to the Democratic-controlled Congress. Bush does not want to use his executive privilege to bypass Congress, as he has done in the past, in order to show that support for moderates is unequivocal.
The funding is a delicate matter for Abbas, said Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, a Washington think tank.
“Strengthening the Fatah group with money and arms seems to be pushing toward a civil war,” Hijab said. “With Hamas, you’re not talking about a party that can be ignored, but a substantial party with supporters that articulates a message about Palestinian rights that hasn’t been heard form Fatah for a while.”
The idea of the funds is not to spur a civil war, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, but to make clear to Hamas that it’s not the only game in town.
“Doing nothing would be a Pac-Man situation: You let Hamas gobble up Gaza,” Makovsky said from Cairo, where he was launching his own tour to meet the region’s principles.
Both Rice and the Israelis speak about a new, positive momentum. Rice believes moderate forces in the Arab world, who want to keep a lid on Islamic radicalism, are more supportive of an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation than ever before.
By the same token, however, the radicals will want to keep the conflict simmering. And, as in Iraq, the extremists will do all they can to undo America’s best-laid plans.
JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.