Condoleezza Rice stakes legacy on dubious bid for Israeli-Palestinian accord

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that the aim of the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian “conference” next month is not to “offer solutions” on final-status issues.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has staked her legacy on salvaging a meaningful agreement at the talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders at Annapolis, Md. However, the timing is inauspicious, the parties are poorly positioned to effect a meaningful bargain, and the U.S. strategy is questionable.

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Rice has decided that the time has come for the administration of President Bush to focus its energy and political capital on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, her push to bring the two sides together diplomatically is likely to fall on fallow ground, as neither of the parties is politically prepared to discuss a deal.

Details matter

During the 1980s many reasonable observers wondered whether common ground could ever be found between Palestinians and Israelis. The Oslo Accords of 1993 suggested that some overlap existed between the maximum Israeli offer and the minimum the Palestinians might accept. Yet seven years of only fitful negotiations underlined how small details and sticking points were capable of blocking a final agreement. When it left office in late 2000, the administration of President Bill Clinton left behind the “Clinton parameters.” They were both the high water mark of what had been agreed upon in principle and a blueprint detailing key points that remained to be negotiated.

Mounting skepticism

The most serious obstacle remains demonstrating to skeptics that an agreement would bring peace:
• Many Israelis continue to doubt that Palestinians would ever lay down their arms — even if they were allowed to establish a state outside Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries.

• For their part, Palestinians doubt that Israel would ever end its occupation of the West Bank and allow Palestinians control over their own affairs.

• The 2002 “Road Map for Peace” was intended to reassure skeptics by outlining reciprocal steps that would lead towards peace and a Palestinian state by 2005, but the document fell apart in the face of surging Palestinian-Israeli violence during the “Second Intifada.”

Fading illusions

Recent political events within both societies have undermined cherished illusions and hopes for near-term peace:

• Hamas ‘untamed.’ Hamas’s 2006 Palestinian election victory has not, as some on both sides hoped, softened its rhetoric or its actions. Fatah’s forced flight from Gaza not only highlights the difficulty the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has establishing control over many Palestinians, but also the fact that hard-liners are increasingly ascendant within Hamas.

• No unilateral solution. Israelis are stung that their withdrawal from Gaza has not meant an end to rocket fire from there, just as their withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 did not bring peace to northern Israel. In both cases, the notion that Israel did not need a “partner” and could effect a unilateral solution proved illusory.

• Mutual insecurity. Most Palestinians view the security barrier Israel is erecting as yet another in a long series of land grabs that aim to dispossess Palestinians; most Israelis see it as a necessary defense against an unrelenting foe.

Wrong strategy?

The problem now facing U.S. efforts to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace is not one of mere tactics — it is one of strategy:

• Mutual frustration. According to opinion polls, a solid majority of Palestinians and Israelis alike seek a two-state solution, but doubt whether one is attainable. Israelis are frustrated: They believe that they have fought for peace, negotiated for peace, and unilaterally withdrawn for peace, all to no avail. They are divided on what measure of violence and negotiation, directed towards what targets, will bring lasting peace. Palestinians are engaged in a reciprocal debate, with many arguing that some willingness to use violence is the only way to force Israelis to the negotiating table.

• Rice’s uninspired approach. Rice’s conference strategy is unlikely to break this impasse. Instead, it brings together people already on record favoring a negotiated solution, in general terms, to rehash their stated positions. In a more auspicious political environment, this could make sense. Leaders fortified by a popular mandate could potentially use such a meeting to launch a comprehensive agreement. Yet Rice brings together two leaders — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PNA President Mahmoud Abbas — in the twilight of their political careers. They are widely excoriated within their own electorates for their naivety about the nature of their adversary. Political weakness compels the Palestinian side to demand more, the Israeli side to surrender less.

• Exhausted Bush prestige. Olmert and Abbas are being brought together under the aegis of a U.S. president at the twilight of his own political career, one so burdened with Middle Eastern problems that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now only his third priority in the region, after Iraq and Iran. Bush’s predicament is highlighted by the distance he has maintained from this enterprise up to now. For a president who emphasizes personal diplomacy, this is a strong indication of White House pessimism. Although Bush and Rise are clearly close, she appears to be handling the Israeli-Palestinian brief alone.

Ominous portents

A conference staged in the current unpromising political environment is likely to be worse than a failure — it could set back the process. Rather than move the parties towards peace, it may demonstrate how difficult it is even for those who favor peace to bring it about. This doleful demonstration could strengthen rejectionists on both sides.

Politics before diplomacy

At the moment, politics may need to take priority over diplomacy. Israelis and Palestinians require genuine national debates about how they should proceed towards peace:

• Israeli election politics. There needs to be some form of broad political consensus on strategy. Israel seems poised to begin an election campaign that will discuss exactly how to proceed. Where Israeli politics end up — whether Kadima endures as a centrist party, and whether the Israeli public tilts left or right — will help determine how Israelis pursue peace.

• Hamas ‘spoiler.’ Palestinians have a much harder task in prospect, because their politics are in serious disarray. The 22-month U.S.-led effort to weaken Hamas has further divided Palestinians rather than uniting them behind Fatah and Abbas. While Hamas may not be strong enough to govern, it has ample capacity to act as a spoiler at a time of its choosing.

Alternative approach

Rice is seeking a diplomatic capstone to her years of service to the Bush administration, but the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is principally political, not diplomatic. Moving the politics would require a U.S. commitment of immense courage and creativity that changes the politics on both sides. Those politics would require a unified Palestinian community that includes both Hamas and Fatah, and less polarization on the Israeli side. The Bush administration appears unprepared to consider or pursue such an approach.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com.