Bush flirts with peace talks but won’t commit to Palestinians


The rug that Syrian President Bashar pulled out from under his widely reported but vaguely defined peace offensive last week was a Persian weave.

He had been talking for months about unconditionally resuming negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights, and it seemed like Israel, under American pressure, was the disinterested party. Then roles were quickly reversed in a week filled with feints and false starts, but so far there’s been more motion than movement.

President George W. Bush kicked off the week by reaffirming his vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it was widely seen as an attempt to divert attention from his debacle in Iraq rather than a commitment to sustained diplomacy.

That view was reinforced by a White House mailing to Jewish leaders recommending an article by historian Michael Oren quoting Israeli officials as satisfied “there were no changes in Bush’s policies.”

White House aides also quickly shot down any notion that the “international meeting” Bush announced would be a peace conference. Just a meeting, they said, chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Bush may not even show up. And don’t look for many Arab leaders to be there, either. The price of admission will be recognition of Israel, Bush said. That leaves out all those who should be there, like Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iraq.

That’s right, Iraq. Bush’s icon of Arab democracy where leaders have repeatedly denounced the Zionist enemy and have no more interest in peace than that other benefactor of Bush’s democracy crusade — Hamas.

Assad’s shift hardly seemed coincidental, coming on the eve of a visit by his Iranian benefactor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to a London-based Arabic newspaper, Ahmadinejad signed a strategic agreement with Syria promising increased military, political and economic assistance conditioned on a refusal to make peace with Israel.

To press his point, Ahmadinejad also met in Damascus with leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups, encouraging them to unite in armed struggle against Israel, and he pledged Iran’s support.

Reversing his recent rhetoric, Assad announced he would resume talks with Israel only through a third party and only with advance written Israeli “guarantees” to meet all his demands, including a full return of the Golan Heights.

That came on the heels of a tactical shift by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who after months of dodging Assad’s probes, told Al-Arabiya television last week that he is ready for direct talks without preconditions.

Olmert had been under pressure from Washington to rebuff Assad’s peace feelers on the assumption the Syrian leader was just trying to deflect American pressure to stop aiding the Iraqi insurgents. As a condition for talks, Olmert had demanded Assad withdraw his backing for Hezbollah, Hamas and other anti-Israel Islamic extremist groups prior to any talks.

American sanctions have had little impact on Assad’s behavior, and the Syrian dictator apparently concluded threats of military action were a bluff in light of American problems in Iraq and Israel’s poor performance against Hezbollah in Lebanon last year.

Iran, according to Israeli analysts, has been trying to raise regional tensions by telling Assad that Israel is planning a war against Syria to block Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon and to erase last year’s failures. Ahmadinejad’s real goal may be to discourage American or Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, they say.

The other prominent visitor to the region this week, with a totally opposite agenda, is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the new Middle East envoy for the Quartet (United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia). His assignment is to help the Palestinians rebuild their institutions and economy, but he’d like to expand that and be an active peace negotiator as well.

That’s not what President Bush had in mind when he outsourced Middle East diplomacy to his old friend and loyal Iraq war partner. Blair has been a longtime advocate of accelerating the peace process and has the backing of three quarters of the Quartet.

His greatest obstacle might be Rice, who doesn’t want him treading on her turf. She’s made it clear that he should stick to his official mandate. That’s the way Ehud Olmert wants it, too; he’s no more ready than the Americans for the final status negotiations that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants.

But it’s more than just territorial for Rice; her boss likes to talk about peace but has been unwilling to do the heavy lifting needed to get negotiations off the ground.

Initially he didn’t want to be seen following the failed footsteps of his predecessors –Poppy and Bill Clinton — but Iraq overtook that. Bush paid lip service to Middle East peace because the Arabs, his allies and the Baker-Hamilton Commission said showing movement on that front was essential to convincing others to help rescue him from his Iraq morass.

Bush will hear that again this week when Jordanian King Abdullah II comes to the White House to tell him he’s not moving aggressively enough on the Palestinian front. The president will assure his royal visitor of his sincere desire for peace, but the reality is Bush’s desire to be the father of Palestinian statehood hasn’t gone beyond the flirtation stage. Wishes don’t beget results.

From Damascus to Jerusalem to Ramallah to Washington, these days of summer sizzle are looking like a time of peace fizzle.

Douglas M. Bloomfield, a former staff member of AIPAC, writes about the Mideast and politics of Jewish life in America.

Why ‘peace camps’ do not make peace


Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, and Israeli society took a hard look at this pivotal turning point in its history.

Silver-haired generals, retired politicians, journalists and analysts were the week’s favorites on Israeli TV programs, as they struggled with the country’s most painful questions:

Could the war have been avoided? Could things have turned out better had the war not been launched on June 6, 1967? Has Israel missed any opportunity to turn victory into peace?

While almost everyone is in agreement that the occupation has taken a terrible material and moral toll on Israel society, many noted that the 1967 conquest also led to the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and it still offers Israel an indispensable bargaining chip in its current plea for peace with Syria and the Palestinians.

Thus, The Economist’s characterization of the 1967 war as “Israel’s wasted victory” is by general consent misconceived and ill informed. Audiences were further reminded that the 1967 war gave a death blow to Pan-Arabism, an ideology that could have posed as serious a threat to Israel’s existence as radical Islam does today.

While this soul-searching exercise was going on on Israeli TV, the June 6 anniversary also provided a platform for some of the most vicious attacks on Israel’s existence. Our friend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has decided again that Israel’s days are numbered, and his intellectual allies in Europe and the United States did not sit idle.

My UCLA colleague, Sari Makdisi, for example, has raised the pitch of his racist rhetoric to conclude on the pages of The Nation that “Zionism has run its course, and in doing so has killed any possibility of a two-state solution.”

As usual, those who claim to be victims of “Orientalism” – that is, depicting Arabs from a Western perspective – have no qualms redefining other people’s identities.

Whenever I read any of the harsh anti-occupation articles, many by well-meaning Jews, I can’t help but wonder whether these authors truly believe that Israel oppresses Palestinians out of pleasure or greed, and I ask myself what makes them blind to the collective agony that Israeli society goes through on account of the occupation, as well as to the nation’s genuine struggle to extricate itself from it, if that were at all possible. I also wonder whether any of these erudite authors spend as much time researching the ramifications of an immediate Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders as they currently spend on bashing Israel’s attempts to reach a peace settlement first.

The most revealing information that emerged from last week’s developments came not from the “Israel-bashing” pack but from the pro-coexistence camps. If anyone wonders why the peace process is in no better shape today than it was in 1967 or in 1993 or 2000, a reading through the publications of the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps should provide the answer.

Both sides are stubbornly refraining from addressing the one issue that they know is necessary and sufficient for peace: Palestinian acceptance of the idea of a permanent Jewish state in the 1967 borders, including the resettlement of the refugees outside those borders. Each side pretends that this acceptance is already an established fact, and neither side, perhaps out of fear of offending the other or spoiling the dialogue, dares examine the evidence.

The Israeli peace camp speaks as if it believes that the majority of Palestinians desire permanent coexistence and that the problem is merely that of convincing or controlling a temporarily violent minority.

The Palestinian peace camp, on the other hand, speaks as though it believes that the majority of Israelis will agree to withdraw to the 1967 borders once terror is reigned in and that there is, therefore, no need to discuss Israel’s historic legitimacy or compromises on the Palestinians “right of return.”

These positions do not reflect prevailing beliefs in either community. Israelis do not believe the majority of Palestinians desire permanent coexistence, and the Palestinians know that Israelis are united against withdrawal from the territories as long as, and only as long as, this disbelief persists.
This week, for the first time, these facts received hard evidential confirmation.

New public opinion research conducted by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information has shown that fear of the Palestinians, lack of trust in both their aspirations and their ability to be partners for peace are the greatest obstacles to Israeli willingness to move ahead toward a peace process and toward making concessions. (Source: Gershon Baskin, Jerusalem Post, June 4, 2007.) The report states:

Sixty-two percent of Israelis believe that Palestinians want to establish their state on all the territory from the Jordan to the sea. Fifty-six percent believe that Palestinians want such a state without Jews. Nearly four times as many Israelis (30 percent) believe that almost no Palestinians are prepared to make concessions for peace as those who believe that most of them will (8 percent).

More revealing, the research also shows that Israelis are open to changing their attitudes toward Palestinians:

“When presented with a scenario where the Palestinian Ministry of Education removes all textbooks from the curriculum that incite against Israel and replaces them with textbooks educating for acceptance of the State of Israel and the importance of living with it in peace, nearly 70 percent of Israelis said it would increase their trust that the Palestinians want to make concessions for peace.

“When presented with the following: A number of influential Palestinian religious leaders, including Hamas, declare on Palestinian television in Arabic that according to Islam, Jews have the right to live in their historic homeland and Palestinian Muslims must accept this, almost 60 percent of Israelis said it would increase their trust in that the Palestinians want to make concessions for peace.”

Are Israelis’ perceptions of Palestinians’ aspirations overly paranoid? I doubt it. That Palestinians are far from accepting Israel’s legitimacy, or even a mild version of it, is clear not merely from their textbooks, TV programs, mosque sermons and Hamas’ victory in the last election but primarily from the activities of their spokespersons in the Palestinian diaspora.

Fatah-Hamas conflict forces Palestinians to choose


In calling for elections, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sharpened the choice facing the Palestinian people: Back his Fatah party and have peace with Israel and the promise of economic prosperity, or support the rejectionism of Hamas, whose nine months in office have brought only war, chaos and impoverishment.

Abbas’ call Saturday for early elections in the Palestinian Authority triggered fierce street fighting between Fatah and Hamas, which won the last election in January. Despite a hastily arranged cease-fire Monday, the two factions remain on the brink of civil war.

The United States, Israel and other Western countries are hoping for a Fatah election victory that could pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The United States is actively helping Fatah, but Israel — fearing that support for Fatah will backfire and undermine the moderates — is staying out.

The turmoil in the Palestinian camp comes as Syria launched a new initiative for peace with Israel. Peace with Syria would be a major strategic gain for Israel, breaking up the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, and it would put additional pressure on the Palestinians to cut a deal with Israel.

But Israel is not biting. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not trust Syria’s intentions and does not want to cross President Bush, who opposes dealings with Damascus.

The internal Palestinian struggle and the Syrian overtures are both part of a greater regional struggle for hegemony, pitting Iran and radicals such as Syria and Hamas against Western-leaning moderates such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Abbas’ Fatah. How the Palestinian struggle plays out, and whether Syria comes over to the moderate side, will have major implications for Iran’s position in the region.

In his speech Saturday calling for elections, Abbas launched a scathing attack on Hamas’ policy of violence and non-recognition of Israel.

“The settler land” — parts of Gaza that Israel evacuated last year — “should have flourished with economic, tourist and agricultural projects, but some people insist on firing rockets,” he scoffed.

“They kidnapped the Israeli soldier,” a reference to Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Gaza gunmen last June. “And since then they paid with 500 martyrs, 4,000 wounded and thousands of homes destroyed.”

The subtext was clear: Violence is getting the Palestinians nowhere, while peace moves could bring economic reward.

But Abbas did not set any date for elections. Analysts say he hopes to use the threat of elections to pressure Hamas into forming a national unity government with Fatah. That might enable the Palestinian Authority to accept the international community’s benchmarks for dialogue — recognition of Israel, acceptance of past agreements and renunciation of violence — paving the way for peace talks and the lifting of the international economic boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Some Hamas leaders are in favor of this. Others still hope to circumvent the boycott by bringing in Iranian money.

P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was intercepted recently trying to smuggle $30 million from Iran into Gaza in a suitcase. Indeed, Hamas strategy is built on financial and political ties with Tehran.

“Iran gives us strategic depth,” Haniyeh declared during a recent visit to Tehran.

The thinking behind this is the basis for Hamas rejectionism. Hamas leaders believe that if they can hold out until Iran gains regional dominance, they’ll be able to defeat Israel. Therefore, they argue, any attempts to make peace with the Jewish state are short-sighted.

The fighting on the streets was the worst between Fatah and Hamas in years, with children caught in the crossfire. Leaders on both sides also came under fire: There was a shooting attack on Haniyeh’s convoy as he returned to Gaza from Iran. Hamas blamed Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan and threatened to assassinate him.

Later, mortars were fired at Abbas’ presidential compound in Gaza.

Pundits say the slide into civil war can only be averted if there is an agreement on holding elections or if a unity government is formed. Hamas has been adamantly against elections, describing Abbas’ call for an early ballot as an “attempted coup” against a legitimately elected government.

Despite efforts to reach a compromise, analysts argue that an eventual showdown is inevitable, since the two groups’ basic positions on Israel and the nature of a future Palestinian state are irreconcilable.
As both sides prepare for armed conflict, the West is openly backing Fatah. The United States has pledged funds, and an American general, Keith Dayton, is training Fatah forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Ramallah on Monday to back Abbas’ conception of peacemaking as something that brings significant economic benefits. By outlining a vision of economic prosperity, Blair hoped to convince the Palestinian people that Abbas’ approach has a good chance of success.

Abbas also has the backing of moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which is providing funds, and Egypt, which reportedly is supplying weapons.

Syria, however, continues to host Hamas leaders in Damascus, and that is one of the reasons Israel is wary of its new peace offer.

The Syrian peace rhetoric was unprecedented. In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, President Assad invited Olmert to meet him and test his intentions, while Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the Washington Post that a commitment to return the Golan Heights was no longer a precondition for talks.

Israeli leaders are divided on how to respond. Olmert, and most of the government, argue that Syria must first show whether it’s on the side of Iran or the West. It can do that by expelling Hamas and other terrorist leaders from Damascus and stopping its meddling in Iraq and Lebanon.

Others, in Labor, the left and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, say Israel should use the chance to engage Damascus and try to swing it to the moderate camp. In a briefing of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan came down firmly on Olmert’s side, arguing that Syria isn’t really interested in peace but simply wanted to use talks with Israel as a means of easing Western pressure.

Some pundits argue, however, that Olmert is making a huge strategic blunder. The most scathing was Ma’ariv political analyst Ben Caspit.

“I wonder what Ehud Olmert will say to the members of the next commission of inquiry — the one that is set up in two or three years time after war with Syria or after it becomes clear just how big a chance was missed to split the axis of evil and isolate Iran,” Caspit wrote.

One More Casualty in Crisis — Unilateralism


More than two weeks into the war in Lebanon, there is a growing consensus that one of the chief casualties will be Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Pundits on the right and left argue that the war in Lebanon and fighting with the Palestinians in Gaza prove that unilateralism doesn’t work. They note that both previous unilateral pullbacks, from Lebanon in May 2000 and Gaza in August 2005, were followed by rocket attacks on Israeli civilians from the evacuated areas.

The same is bound to happen if Israel withdraws unilaterally from the West Bank without cast-iron security arrangements, pundits say.

But Olmert remains unmoved. Close aides say he is determined to pull out of the West Bank and set Israel’s permanent borders by the end of his current term in 2010. One of the main reasons is demographic — to ensure a democratic Israeli state with a clear Jewish majority.

The question is how to do it.

After the Lebanon and Gaza experiences — sustained rocket attacks on Israel in the wake of unilateral pullouts — will Olmert still want to adopt last summer’s Gaza model of withdrawal without agreement, or will he seek a different formula, such as bilateral arrangements with moderate Palestinian leaders or the introduction of international forces to keep the peace after Israel pulls back?
One of the most influential backers of the unilateral idea was journalist Ari Shavit of Ha’aretz, whose 2005 book, “Dividing the Land,” attempted to explain the rationale of the idea. But now Shavit has become one of unilateralism’s most outspoken critics.

Shavit’s change of heart reflects widespread disillusionment in Israel with the unilateral approach. In mid-July, a day after the outbreak of hostilities in the North, Shavit published an article “The End of the Third Way,” urging the government to come up with a new strategy.

In the article, Shavit argues that Israel has gone through three predominant policy phases since the 1967 Six-Day War, each undermined by an eruption of Arab violence. Initially, Shavit says, Israelis believed the Palestinian conflict could be maintained by occupation, then through a peace deal, and after that through unilateral separation.

But the occupation thesis was discredited by the first intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the peace process it generated exploded with the second intifada in 2000 and unilateralism has crashed against the violence in Gaza and Lebanon, which Shavit calls the “third intifada.”

He concludes that “Israel is now desperately in need of a new diplomatic idea, a new strategic idea, a fourth way.”

A number of ideas are coming to the fore:

  • An international force to keep the peace and oversee the transition to Palestinian statehood after Israeli withdrawal.

    The endgame in Lebanon envisages a multinational force to keep the peace and help the Lebanese government deploy forces in the South and disarm Hezbollah. If that happens and proves successful, analysts say the model could be extended to the West Bank and Gaza.

    There it could take the form of an international mandate responsible for the transition to Palestinian statehood. Its main tasks would be to police the cease-fire, help create a single Palestinian armed force and build democratic institutions.

    The main advantage is that it could provide the stability Israel and the Palestinians have been unable to achieve. The main disadvantage is that an international force could become a target of Palestinian terrorism.
    The idea of an international transitional mandate has been proposed before by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.

  • The establishment of a Palestinian mini-state with temporary borders through direct negotiations under American aegis between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

    The Americans would need to give both sides strong guarantees: To Israel that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved in the emerging Palestinian state, and to the Palestinians that the final border will closely approximate the pre-1967 boundary.

    The main advantage of this approach is that it would be easier to achieve than a full peace deal. The main disadvantages are that the Palestinians have opposed the idea because they fear temporary borders would become permanent; the Israelis suspect that Abbas, even if he signed an agreement, would not be able to deliver.

    The Israeli Foreign Ministry has set up a team to refine this approach.

  • Going back to the “Clinton parameters” of December 2000 for a final peace deal. Left-wingers argue that if the sides are able to begin negotiations on a mini-state they might as well aim for a full peace deal and a full-fledged Palestinian state. Terrorist organizations would be dismantled, the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and border arrangements would be made to prevent weapons smuggling.

    The trouble is that this is precisely the formula that failed so dramatically at Camp David six years ago, and the situation has deteriorated markedly since then.

  • Modified unilateralism. Israel’s West Bank settlements would be dismantled but the army would remain to prevent Kassam rocket fire and other terror attacks.

    The main advantage is that Palestinian terrorists wouldn’t be able to arm and act as freely as they would if the army pulls out. The main disadvantage is that Israeli occupation would continue, creating points of friction with Palestinians and costing Israel international goodwill.

    Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, is the main proponent of this approach.

  • A Palestinian arrangement in the context of a major regional shake-up. This would entail stability in Lebanon under an international umbrella, good neighborly relations between Israel and Lebanon, and possibly even detachment of Syria from the Iranian axis.

    This would depend on the degree to which Israel crushes Hezbollah’s military power in the current conflict. Hezbollah’s defeat would reverberate in the territories and could lead to a strategic reassessment by Hamas leaders, especially if the Syria-Iran axis also collapses.

    The main advantage is that conditions could be created for a final, comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The disadvantage is that so far, at least, there is little sign that this scenario is realistic.

It’s clear that Olmert will have to adapt to the new post-war reality — but it’s still too early to gauge which fourth way,” if any, he’ll adopt.