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::
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.