Diplomacy and Skepticism

Middle East diplomacy shifted to New York this week amid widespread skepticism that there is any formula that can convince Israel and the Palestinians to make even slight progress toward peace.

Helping fuel the skepticism were two Palestinian terror attacks that coincided with the diplomatic meetings and claimed the lives of at least 11 Israelis. On Wednesday, two suicide bombers staged an attack in the heart of Tel Aviv, outside a move theater, killing at least three. A day earlier, in an attack similar to one carried out last December, Palestinian terrorists set off a bomb as a bus neared the entrance to the West Bank settlement of Immanuel and then opened fire as people fled the bus.Eight Israelis were killed, including two infants.

Tuesday’s attack came hours before officials from the so-called Quartet the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations — met in New York in an effort to devise a strategy that would help Israel and the Palestinians overcome their seemingly intractable differences.

The parties emerged with a general agreement to follow President Bush’s June 24 call for the evolution of a Palestinian state within three years. But major differences still exist between the United States and the other international mediators on how to get there. Bush had said a provisional state could emerge only after the Palestinians implement serious economic and political reforms. The others seem to disagree.

Another major area of disagreement involves the future status of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The United States has made it clear that they it wants Arafat out of power — or at least away from the day-to-day responsibilities of running the Palestinian Authority. The Europeans, Russians and U.N. leaders say Arafat is the democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people and therefore should be involved in the reform process.

Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters after the first round of meetings on Tuesday: "As for Arafat, we all have our respective positions. The U.N. still recognizes Chairman Arafat and we will continue to deal with him until the Palestinians decide otherwise."

Another point of contention is whether initial reform should begin on the security front alone, as the United States argues, or in conjunction with economic and infrastructure reform, as the other international players suggest.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he would like ideally for security, political and economic reform to work in parallel, but the top priority was to get a "better handle" on the security situation. Powell said the CIA is working on a new plan to protect Israel from terrorist attacks. The United States is discussing the security plan with Palestinian officials, Powell added. The other leaders countered that humanitarian and infrastructure reform was necessary to implement security.

Robert Satloff, director of policy and strategic planning for the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, says the Quartet’s communique contradicts much of what Bush outlined in his June speech.

"Although no one should have expected the Quartet to parrot the president’s speech, the fact that its statement contradicts that speech in critical areas is a worrisome sign that disagreements on Middle East policy persist not only among America’s allies, but within the administration itself," Satloff wrote this week in an analysis.

Among the disagreements he notes, is the fact that the Quartet seeks statehood not as the end of negotiations but as the end of implementation of reforms to the Palestinian government, and makes no mention of provisional statehood, as Bush suggested. It also calls for Israel to immediately release tax revenue funds, instead of seeking "honest and accountable hands," as the president suggested.

The State Department entered Tuesday’s meetings seeking a dialogue with its diplomatic partners to determine clear criteria for Palestinian reform. The United States has not drafted such criteria, a State Department official said, but the goal is to announce them by late August. State Department officials said they were also seeking "centralized, transparent accountable Palestinian institutions" and "reciprocal steps by Israel" as the Palestinians move forward with reform.

Much of what emerges from this week’s meetings in New York with the Quartet and with Arab leaders from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan will be utilized by a newly created international task force. The task force, involving the Quartet plus Japan, Norway, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, will seek to implement financial reforms within the Palestinian government.

And while some consensus has been reached by the Quartet on how to move forward, questions remain as to whether Israeli or Palestinian officials will be willing to accept their proposals. To that end, positive signs have emerged. Arab leaders, meeting with Powell on Wednesday, expressed support for the approach the United States has outlined for changes within the Palestinian government.

"Maybe we do not agree on all the details, but we are determined to work together for peace and I think we will succeed to bring peace to this area under the banner of legitimacy, democracy and prosperity for all," said Ahmed Maher, Egypt’s foreign minister.

The Arab leaders, who reportedly were seeking a statehood declaration after the January elections, also seem to have acquiesced to the three-year timetable the United States has proposed. In addition, a senior Palestinian official told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Arafat was considering appointing a prime minister to share day-to-day leadership responsibilities, once a Palestinian state is declared. While Israel was not a participant in this week’s meetings, Israeli officials were watching closely.

"If this is perceived as being Israeli-led, it’s not going to succeed, and we want it to succeed," an Israeli official in Washington said.

In anticipation of the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent a telegram to Powell outlining the Israeli position. According to reports, Sharon stressed that security is still Israel’s utmost priority.

Sharon’s telegram came on the heels of one sent to Powell by Arafat in which the Palestinian leader spelled out his vision for reforms in the Palestinian Authority. For his part, Sharon has long maintained that there would be no negotiations with the Palestinians as long as violence continues. Sharon has also said that Arafat must be replaced before there can be any meaningful negotiations.

A State Department official said plans are being discussed for another working meeting of the international task force and the Quartet in August, around the time the United States would like to announce its benchmark proposals.