/By Patrick Seale/
/Saudi Gazette, February 24, 2007/
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears to be an intelligent,
well-intentioned woman who, like a number of her predecessors, would
genuinely like to make a personal contribution to the cause of
Arab-Israeli peace. But after no fewer than eight visits of the region,
she has failed to advance the peace process by the tiniest of tiny
The reasons are many and complex, of which the most glaringly obvious is
that she has been knifed in the back by the hawkish pro-Israeli Elliott
Abrams, the White House’s main adviser on Middle East affairs, but also
that President George W. Bush himself has failed, at a critical moment,
to support her.
Rice headed last weekend for Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman declaring
that she wished to discuss the contours of a future Palestinian state
and provide the Palestinians with a “political horizon.” This was widely
read to mean that the United States had taken note of the Makkah
agreement, concluded between Fatah and Hamas under Saudi auspices
earlier in February, and was prepared to give the proposed new
Palestinian national unity government a chance.
At Makkah, the Islamic movement Hamas had pledged to "respect" past
agreements between the PLO and Israel, an implicit recognition of the
Jewish state and therefore a big stride towards meeting the terms
imposed by the Quartet (US, Russia, EU and UN) for resumed cooperation
and funding of the Palestinian government.
It seemed that Saudi Arabia’s mediation had managed not only to avert a
full-blown Palestinian civil war but also to allow the lifting of the
crippling international boycott of the Hamas government, which has
reduced the Palestinians to abject penury over the past year.
The hope was that the much heralded summit on February 19 between
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas, which Rice was to chair, would jump-start talks on
substantive issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
In the event, of course, nothing of the sort happened. The meeting
turned into an acrimonious shouting match. Olmert accused Abbas of
“betraying” him by doing a deal with Hamas, a movement Israel wants to
destroy not co-opt. Abbas retorted angrily that he had given Olmert no
such promise and that his priority was to stop an intra-Palestinian war.
The outcome had in fact been decided before Rice even touched down in
Israel. Olmert had phoned George Bush on February 16 and had secured a
private assurance from him that the Makkah agreement changed nothing and
that the US would join Israel in continuing to shun Hamas. In the
Israeli view, the Makkah accord had actually set back the cause of peace
by legitimizing Hamas! Olmert was able to crow that the US and Israeli
positions were identical. His spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, ruled out any
talks on a final peace deal with Abbas, if he went ahead with plans to
form a new cabinet that included Hamas. “We’re not talking about
negotiations on final-status issues,” Eisin said.
Poor Condoleezza Rice! She evidently lacks all authority in dealing with
the Middle East. She should not waste her time, and arouse false hopes,
by going there, since her boss has embraced the Israeli view that the
democratically elected Hamas government is a “terrorist” organization in
league with Iran and Syria and that it must be eliminated from the scene
before any progress can be made. The Israeli tail continues to wag the
Although attempts are being made in Europe and elsewhere to relaunch the
peace process, Israel has no intention whatsoever of concluding a peace
with the Palestinians which would involve withdrawing to anywhere near
the 1967 borders. It will stop at nothing to prevent serious
negotiations taking place.
As Geoffrey Aronson, of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East
Peace, writes in his latest report on Israeli settlement in the Occupied
Territories, “Like Ben Gurion, Olmert excels in creating facts on the
ground… under his watch, the settler population in the West Bank
(excluding East Jerusalem) increased by nearly 6 percent on 2006.” At
the end of the year, there were 268,379 Israelis living in the West
Bank, while not a single illegal outpost was removed.
It would take extraordinary courage and personal commitment for a US
President to halt Israel’s creeping annexation of Palestinian land –
because of the overwhelming support for Israel in the Congress, in the
American media and in Washington’s many right-wing think-tanks; because
of major funding by American Jews of both Democratic and Republican
election campaigns; and because of the powerful influence of pro-Israeli
officials embedded inside the US administration.
Bush, meanwhile, is wholly absorbed by the calamitous war in Iraq, by
the Taleban resurgence in Afghanistan and by his dangerous game of
chicken with Iran. This is where the legacy of his presidency will be
decided, as well as the future of America’s hegemony over the vital
oil-rich Gulf. As his record of neglect of the Arab-Israeli conflict
over the past six years has shown, he sees no strategic threat to
American interests if it remains unresolved. In his view, Israel can be
left to settle the conflict in its own time and on its own terms.
What of the Europeans? Is there any hope that the European Union might
step in to fill the vacuum created by Israeli obduracy and American
indifference? Norway is the only European country to say that the Makkah
agreement satisfies the three conditions posed by the Quartet for
lifting the boycott of a national unity Palestinian government – namely
recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past
treaties between the PLO and Israel.
Several other European countries share this view privately but are too
timid to say so publicly. Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair has
remained silent, although he earlier trumpeted his determination to
devote his last months in office to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Financed by the Norwegian government, a delegation including
representatives of leading NGOs, such as the International Crisis Group
and Search for Common Ground, as well as individual peace activists, is
planning to tour the Middle East from March 8 to 12. But, without strong
EU backing and without concerted Arab pressure on the United States,
such well-meaning efforts will not sway Israel’s hard-liners.
The EU has, in fact, failed as spectacularly as Condoleezza Rice. It
made the grave mistake of following the Israeli-US lead in isolating the
Hamas government and withdrawing budget support. But, anxious to prevent
a humanitarian catastrophe, the EU set up a so-called “Temporary
International Mechanism” to channel funds to Palestinian hospitals and
clinics, to secure energy supplies and access to water and to provide
social services to the poorest Palestinians.
Far from promoting peace among Palestinians – let alone
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – these EU policies encouraged Fatah to
seek to regain power from Hamas by force and have, as a result, driven
Hamas into the arms of Iran and Syria.
The EU should follow Norway’s example in accepting the Makkah agreement
as satisfying the Quartet’s three conditions and put its full weight
into dragging Israel to the negotiating table. According to a report
this month from the US Institute of Peace, most Israelis are prepared to
accept a withdrawal from most of the West Bank that will lead to the
establishment of a Palestinian state. But Olmert and his right-wing
supporters will not budge unless real international pressure is brought
to bear on them.
Israel likes to refer to potential Palestinian militants as “ticking
bombs” and does not hesitate to murder them. In fact, the assassination
of terrorist suspects is Israel’s official policy. Israelis should
perhaps reflect that the greatest “ticking bomb” of all, which must one
day blow up in their faces, is Arab and Muslim outrage at their callous
treatment of the Palestinian population under occupation.