Rice-Olmert-Abbas: End of the Affair

A few months ago I noted that the Bush Administration’s claims to be pursuing a Middle East peace process was equivalent to The Emperor’s New Clothes fairy tale except for one important detail: “In the fairy tale, the emperor’s courtiers are careful never to let on that they can see their monarch’s nakedness; in the case of U.S. Middle East policy, there is what playwright Bertolt Brecht might have called
an epic gap between some of the actors and their lines. Plainly, very few of them believe the things that the script requires them to say. In this absurdist take on the old fairytale, whenever anyone points out that the emperor has no clothes, they are simply told ‘duh!’ before the players get back acting as if it’s fashion week in the

None of that has changed, of course, but now Bush has gone and spoiled it by declaring his intention to host a Grand Ball in Annapolis this coming November, at which he’s expecting Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his pet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the Arab regimes most dependent on Washington not only to show up and dance under ministrations of his naked eminence, but also to strip down to their own birthday suits. And it is in prospect of this grotesque spectacle that the illusion begins to break down: Pretending that Bush is fully clothed and serious about Middle East peace as he scoots naked around the White House is one thing; the pretense of sartorial substance cannot be sustained at the naked grand ball that Condi Rice is currently organizing — Condi’s apparently bottomless capacity for self-delusion notwithstanding. (In Russia last week she was shocked and offended at the suggestion by a liberal anti-Putin dissident that the U.S. had lost the moral high ground — no we haven’t, she insisted…)

Earlier this year, motivated more by its designs on aggression against Iran than anything else, the Administration appeared to convince itself — and no one but itself — that Hamas’s ejection of Fatah security forces from Gaza earlier this year created an “opportunity” for a process that would achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians at the same time as isolating the likes of Hamas, Hizballah, Syria and Iran.

So Rice began forcing a Palestinian leader representative of only a minority of Palestinians to begin holding weekly meetings with an Israeli prime minister who enjoys the approval of no more than one in five Israelis, to build “confidence” in each other’s ability to make peace. Olmert and Abbas, each politically dependent on his relationship with the U.S., had no choice but to go through the motions. At the same time, the U.S. worked to convince Arab regimes that their support was needed for these parties to make a deal, at a peace conference originally intended to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in September, then moved back to November in Annapolis, and now, we are told, likely to be delayed still further until the Israelis and Palestinians can agree on a joint statement. That may not happen, of course, and so, too, any meaningful peace conference.

The expectation that President Bush’s planned November Middle East peace conference will fail is so widespread on all sides of the divide that it might be deemed conventional wisdom. Neither the Israelis, nor the Palestinians and other Arabs, nor most longtime Middle East hands in Washington and other capitals are expecting the Annapolis event, as conceived by the Bush Administration, to produce much of value; instead, their shared concern is largely to head off the very real possibility that its failure actually makes the situation in the Middle East a lot worse, by cutting the already slender ground out from under Palestinian and Arab moderates. Right now, the likes of Abbas represent a minority view even in Fatah when they continue to assume that a U.S.-led diplomatic process can bring a fair and credible solution to this most toxic of conflicts.

The reasons why failure is expected is not hard to see: Seven years after the collapse of Camp David, the Palestinian leadership, now considerably weakened, to whom the U.S. is talking has not substantially altered its negotiating position; its bottom-lines remain broadly similar. But the Israeli political consensus has moved way to the right. Olmert is weak and dependent on allies to the right of him, some of whom openly advocate ethnic cleansing of the remaining Arab population of Israel. (Avigdor Lieberman warned that no peace will be possible without the “transfer” of 1 million Arabs out of Israel. And such casually racist extremism is not from some fringe element; Lieberman is Olmert’s minister of Strategic Affairs). Even Olmert’s dovish credentials are questionable; he was the sidekick of Ariel Sharon in the latter’s ferocious resistance to the Oslo peace process; like Sharon he comes from the party of the settlements, and he has continued Israel’s systematic expansion of its colonization of the West Bank.

Not surprising, then, that Abbas and Olmert want different things from Annapolis: Abbas needs his persistence with diplomacy to be vindicated by rapid movement towards a two-state solution based on Israel’s 1967 borders, with Jerusalem the shared capital and some form of recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees. Anything less would mark him as nothing more than a Palestinian Petain, a Palestinian face on the occupation. But Olmert wants the traditional Sharon recipe of a process without end, a general statement of feel-good principles of coexistence, perhaps a campfire singing of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t it be Nice” over cocoa and smores, and a pledge to return next year for more of the same. No specifics, no maps, no timetables. Nothing, in other words, that would allow Abbas and the Arab regimes to justify their participation.

So, even before they get to such fundamental questions as whether a regionally-backed peace process is possible without participation by Hamas, Syria and even Iran, the basic problem is that the Annapolis invitation makes clear the massive gulf even between Bush’s anointed peacemakers, Abbas and Olmert, over what would define an acceptable outcome of a peace process, and the steps required to get there.

But the deeper problem may not be Olmert or Abbas, but the Bush Administration itself, which, ever since taking office, has not only consciously avoided its diplomatic responsibility to press the parties towards a peace agreement, but has consistently embraced the positions of the Israeli right, to the absurd extent that Bush provided Sharon with a formal letter upholding Israel’s right to maintain its major settlement blocs in the West Bank, contradicting not only international law in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 242, but also four decades of U.S. foreign policy that (correctly) deemed those settlements illegal, and an obstacle to peace.

Indeed, by routinely eschewing the very principle of putting any pressure on Israel to do anything Israel doesn’t want to do, the Bush Administration has essentially made itself an agent of the status quo rather than an agent of peace. Instead, Rice offers the fatuous insistence that the peace process is ultimately a bilateral issue between Israel and the Palestinians, and it must be defined by this “bilateral track.”

That, in itself, is a recipe for failure, for a number of reasons::

  • The Palestinians have very little leverage over Israel, whose military power ranks it among the world’s top five armies, and whose advanced economy and way of life is not substantially impeded by the conflict with the Palestinians. Palestinian suicide bombers managed to disrupt Israeli life for a brief period, and the Kassam rockets fired wildly into Israel from Gaza have made life hell for the residents of a marginal Israeli town in the Negev desert. But even then, by and large, on the current terms of conflict, the Palestinians are unable to muster a strategic threat to Israel. The corollary, of course, is that despite its increasingly vicious collective punishments and its ongoing repression, Israel has not managed to bend the Palestinians to their will. But…
  • Israel can live [EM] quite prosperously, actually [EM] with the status quo, even if the Palestinians can’t and won’t. If the talks fail, Israeli politics will continue as usual. Palestinian politics, however, will see an acceleration of the collapse of the “moderates” represented by President Mahmoud Abbas, who will once again have been shown to have achieved nothing concrete for the Palestinians in more than 15 years of formal negotiations under Washington’s aegis.
  • Both Olmert and Abbas are weak, but for each, the talks have a different meaning. If the talks fail to produce anything substantial, Olmert’s position is not weakened. His major challenge, besides holding his coalition together, is from the Likud opposition of Benjamin Netanyahu. For Abbas, failure of the talks will be politically devastating; yet the basis of success resides in steps the Israelis are unwilling to take.

    Quite simply, left to their own devices, the two sides won’t agree on peace terms. Unless Washington is willing to dictate terms, in line with international law, telling the Israelis and Palestinians where the borders between them are to be drawn based on UN Resolutions (and crafting a consensus behind new ones to give the peace terms the force of international law), it is doing more damage than good through its peace masquerade.

    The Bush Administration has no intention of doing that, of course. Essentially, it has nothing to offer the very “moderates” it ostensibly backs. Annapolis, if it goes ahead, may simply turn out to be a wake, marking the closure of the era of Pax Americana as the basis of resolving Middle Eastern conflicts.

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    33 Responses to Rice-Olmert-Abbas: End of the Affair

    1. Gary says:

      Anapolis -> Annapolis

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    4. Tony says:

      Thanks Gary, I changed the spelling of Annapolis per your correction

    5. Matthew says:

      Tony: To use a metaphor, most American commentators fall for either the Richard Perle track or the Dennis Ross track on the Peace Process. The Perle-ists claim that American hegemony creates peace. (Iraq certainly has shown that to be deluded and unattainable.) The Ross-ists claims that Israel will only make concessions when its security is guaranteed. Your post notes that Israel has no strategic threat from the Palestinians and is now even less inclined to quit the West Bank. So both tracks lead nowhere.

      Do you have a estimate of how far the US postion in the ME must deteriorate before either Bush or his successor determine that solving this problem is a necessity…..for the US?

    6. FredJ says:

      UN resolution 242 is just a UN resolution, it is not a “Law”. The troublesome “Settlements” are in disputed territory. They are not “Illegal”. There is no law forbidding them since they are technically outside of any country. Or perhaps they are in Greater Israel, in which case they are legal.

      As you say, the Palestinians are unable to mount a strategic threat to Israel. But if they establish a Palestinian State, they will indeed be able to mount a strategic threat to Israel. That’s the rub.

      By and large, though, I agree with your entire analysis. Except that we don’t really know how devastating a failure would be to Abbas: He might muddle through.

      Perhaps Hamas should be invited to the talks. They’ll take a hard-line position and the failure of the conference could then be blamed on them. If they don’t show up, we can still blame them for sabotaging the talks by not showing up. Everybody wins!

    7. Dass says:

      Seriously Tony, do you honestly believe that this US administration really wants some kind of genuine peace this time around? They are doing this charade because they want to calm the Arab nerves before they attack Iran.(maybe the Arab elites like Saudi, Jordan and Egypt hate Ahmedinajds guts, but the average Arab respects him even though they think Shiites are phony).
      This charade is exactly what the US admin did before they attacked Iraq. They didnt want the Arab street going nuts, so they put on a Palestinian-Israeli dog and pony show where Ariel Sharon pretended he was oh-so-serious about helping the Palestinians and he held couple of summits where he couldnt have helped but laugh at the comedy he set up.
      The peace process is gone. No one really cares about the palestinians. Thier best hope is to move to some country that needs immigrants. if they do get land, it will the most barren land devoid of water (acquifers) and good soil. Otherwise I fear, they will be razed and humiliated to extinction.

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    10. Bernard Chazelle says:

      A failed meeting is worse than no meeting at all. In fact, if Bush’s goal were to start Intifada III, he could hardly find a better way to proceed.

      Arafat was pressed into Camp David against his will and the whole thing was a disaster. This time, neither Israel nor the Palestinians want this conference. Only Bush does.

      The timing is atrocious.

      First, the obvious, no agreement that excludes Hamas is worth the paper it’s written on.

      Second, for the Israeli government the Palestinian question is a problem that no longer requires that Palestinians be part of the solution. This is a crucial point. From their myopic perspective, Israelis have nothing to receive from the Palestinians any more. Listen to Barak talk about withdrawal from the West Bank in 5 years (ie, when the wall is entirely completed and settlements have grown past the point of no return). Realignment is now the sole, enduring policy of Israel. (Realignment is not what you think: it is actually a Hebrew word which means “Palestinians as potted plants in need of occasional trimming and watering.)

      Third, if you don’t live in Sderot and you’re not part of the growing impoverished class, life in Israel is quite good. Withdrawing from Gaza and losing the Lebanon war were more than enough excitement for a population no longer ready for compromise. To put it bluntly, Israelis have given up on the Palestinians.

      If Annapolis goes ahead, I suspect the Israelis will try to use the occasion to build better relations with the Saudis and any Arab dictatorship that hates Iran as much as they do.
      Palestinians? Yes, they’ll be there. But so will cooks, waiters, and maids. Part of the furniture.

      For Abbas, this looks like a suicide mission. But this being the Middle East, where leaders never pay a price for failure, except when they die. I woulnd’t bet against his survival.

      Only one beneficiary from Annapolis: Hamas.

      Bush truly is a remarkable man!

    11. Matthew says:

      Bernard, do you have any thoughts on the question I asked Tony?

    12. Bernard Chazelle says:

      Matthew: That US hegemony creates stability is part of the creed. I’m sure it’s engraved somewhere in the Council on Foreign Relations building in New York. Cuts across party lines and reaches far beyond neocon Alley or any lobby of any kind.

      Perle is a genius. Only a genius could write in 2003: “And a year from now, I’ll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush.” Not even Borat would have that kind of visionary projection!

      Changes in US foreign policy are rarely brought about by military setbacks. If anything I believe the debacle in Iraq will make it more likely the US will stay in the region. No way the next president will withdraw.

      The economy is a different story. That’s a big story unfolding with huge ramifications.

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    14. Tom Hull says:

      Reading this article tempts me to play devil’s advocate. Bush has switched tactics on occasion, e.g. viz. North Korea. He backed Sharon unconditionally from the start, and what good has that done him? The single biggest problem he faces is the meltdown in Iraq, and Israel is more liability than asset there. Lately he’s been leaning towards the Sunnis in Iraq’s civil war, fulminating against Iran — less, I suspect, because he sees Iran as a threat than because he needs to keep the pro-Iranians in Iraq’s government on their heels. So why shouldn’t he change tactics and use Annapolis to impose a two-state settlement on Israel? He’s on record favoring a Palestinian state. He owes it to Abbas, who’s a complete political criple without it. The Saudis laid the foundation for pan-Arab support for it. Olmert will have a cow, but the only thing that’s propping him up in power is US support — can he risk losing that? He’d have to get some face-saving adjustments — not quite 1967 borders, some sort of lease-back on the settlements, stuff that has been floated around so long even the Bush administration must be cognizant of it. Much of the bluster on the Israeli right is based on the unconditional US support they’ve grown accustomed to; take that away and they’ll crawl back to fringe minority status. The Israel Lobby will pop a vein, but are they really as powerful as they claim not to be? Are they willing to buck Bush if he decides his interests are elsewhere? This Bush is as tight with the Saudis as his father was, and as Karon has argued elsewhere, the Saudis are in the driver’s seat now. No doubt they’re telling Bush that a settlement on Israel will neutralize Hamas and Hezbollah, flip Syria, isolate Iran, and shift the playing field in Iraq. It would also recast Bush’s legacy, which currently is pretty tarnished.

      Of course, this makes too much sense to be something the Bush administration would actually do. The cards are all in place, and it’s pretty straightforward how to play them, but you have to think their instinct for destruction will get the best of them. Still, look at the picture. How deluded can such political basket cases really be?

    15. Ed Carson says:

      Wow… Bernard Chazelle you hit the nail right on the head.

    16. Renfro says:

      Short version.

      Israel does not now, nor have they ever wanted a “piece”…they want the whole pie.

      You want a solution for Palestine? Burn AIPAC and Washington to the ground …then you might see some changes in the ME and the US.

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    19. Ben P says:

      Tom Hull:

      I think what you are saying about the Saudis is right. As I’ve said before, the US is currently pursuing two incompatible strategies in the Middle East (it was pursuing three until sometime in the last year or so – what with the whole “democratization” push). I think it is perfectly legitimate that the US act as a “shoulder-to-shoulder” ally of Israel if thats what it wants to do – but it can’t then also expect that its pretensions to regional hegemony will always be in serious danger.

      The Saudi proposal makes too much sense, as you say. But even the most moderate of “Arab moderates” wants far more from Israel than it is really willing to give – or indeed needs to give, as Tony and some of the other commentators note (along these lines I suggest all readers here read Naomi Klein’s brilliant (albeit significantly flawed) “The Shock Doctrine” – she has a chapter near the end of the book that is entitled something like the “loss of the peace incentive” which makes the point that Israel no longer really needs to make peace and in fact, the status quo is actually good for business in important ways)

      This said, I don’t know how Palestine/Israel solution “flips the script” in Iraq. I think it would neutralize Iran and normalize Syria – and thus probably weaken Hezbollah militarily (although I’m not sure how much it weakens Hezbollah in terms of internal Lebanese politics). Still, the problem in Iraq is beyond the I/P dynamic in very imortant ways:

      1) Because the US has managed to empower important players with at the very least a non-hostile attitude to Iran – and any democratic settlement in Iraq will have such an effect.

      2) Because the nature of the Iraqi economy/polity, I believe, has become “Colombianized”/”Mexicanized,” where a whole series of substate actors have been empowered who benefit from the weakness of the central government while at the same time are deeply implicated in its day to day functioning – as police, as bureacrats, as miltiary etc. Much more so than political/religious insurgencies, once these kinds dynamics are introduced, they are extremely hard to eradicate. See Mexico/Columbia (or for that matter Afghanistan) for more of what I mean.

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    21. Steve Brook says:

      Antony: Itr seems to me that the main reason the impasse in the ME is continuing is the demand to “take sides”.

      Okay, I’ll do just that. I take sides with any move, whoever it’s sponsored by, to start negotiations aimed at a two-state solution. You’ll never get most Israelis to agree to a unitary state which gives equal rights to Palestinians, and similarly with the Palestinians. You’ll never get most Israelis and Jews elsewhere to understand the sources of Palestinian resentment, and this works the other way too.

      In my view the election of Hamas was a major disaster which complicated the situation exponentially. This is an organization, remember, that includes quotes from the “Protocols of Zion” in its Covenant. This is probably more out of ignorance than of ill-will — but it’s there. As long as it IS there, you can expect Israelis and Jews elsewhere to be deeply suspicious of Hamas’ motives.

      So I take sides with those on the Arab/Moslem side who are aware of this, and are trying to do something about it.
      A first step might well be to invite Hamas to the talks in the US, where this could be raised with them. After all they ARE a major player in the game.

      I refuse to take sides either with the Israelis or the Palestinians, for this reduces the whole complex struggle to comic-book level. The Palestinians are subjects of an historical injustice, not of their making, and their sins are those of victims, not of perpetrators. But sins they remain.

      Since “taking sides” always involves ignoring the sins of your own side, I prefer not to do it.

    22. Ben P says:

      Why do you think Hamas ever got to the point where they could win an eleciton in the first place? Well, in part because Fatah became a joke, especially individuals like Abu Maazen. He is a nice enough guy, but he’s completely out of his league. But it was also because Israel never gave Fatah any breathing room. There was never a good faith effort to implement the Oslo Accords. So why should Palestianians vote for moderates if they can’t deliver anything substantive?

      Basically, the two sides are so far apart – even moderates like Maazen – that no agreement is possible. As Tony notes, Israel has no real need to make peace beyond moral/ethical arguments. But such an impulse will only lead to a sop, a bantustan state that will be unacceptable to even the most accomodationist Arab leader.

      Palestine will never be an independent Arab state. The choices are ethnic cleansing on a mass scale or a one state solution. I don’t think this will necessarily occur overnight – I think a one-state solution is what will ultimately result – but it will occur. Maybe in my lifetime, but I’m still a young man. The exact nature of that solution, of that I’m not sure. Maybe something like the powersharign accords signed in Northern Ireland. Maybe like what happened in South Africa. But a viable Palestinian state is at this point a memory.

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    28. Kind says:

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    31. Qaiser says:

      We get upset because there is what to get upset over.These peoidric negotiations are like a volley ball game. Sometimes the ball is hit over at once…sometimes one person sets up another who spikes the ball.Each time we have one of these conferences, the concession ball is being moved closer and closer. True, the promises that Olmert hinted at may not be followed through on–no more than those articulated by Barak during Clinton’s last days.But some day, Israel will be dragged to a conference where the concessions will be promised and enlarged upon–the ball will be brought right up to the net…and Israel will be pushed into following through on those noble promises of painful concessions.Someone is going to spike the ball on Israel’s side and it will be game, set, and match.(And no, I hate volleyball.)

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