Between vision and delusions: The upcoming trilateral meetings between the US, Israel and the Palestinians

Between vision and delusions: The upcoming trilateral meetings between the US, Israel and the Palestinians

Aref Assaf

Daily Record Op-Ed

The Palestine Israel problem is finally getting some attention from the Bush Administration. It was Bush‘s doctrine to allow Israel to contain the Palestine problems by giving Israel almost free hand in dealing with Palestinian concerns. However, the Iraq Report concluded that the issue of Palestine is crucial to the vision of a stable and democratic Middle East. Now that the Palestinian factions have concluded the Mecca Accord to form a unity government, composed of members of Fatah and Hamas, one would hope the upcoming visit by US Secretary of State Rice to the region, followed by the expected meeting between Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas, would produce a more engaged and sincere effort in defining the political horizons of a lasting agreement between the warring parties.

While it is true that the litmus test lies with the ability of the Palestinians: whether the Accord can put an end to the factional bloodletting of the last few months and whether it can lead the beleaguered Palestinian National Authority out of its international isolation. Much, it needs to be stated,  has to happen on the Israeli side to enable a successful agreement. We should be asking Israel to honor the prior agreements it signed with the  PLO, the United States, and the International community. Israel has accelerated its land grab of Arab lands on which the future Palestinian state is supposed to be built.

But the Accord is the latest manifestation of a more visible and assertive Saudi role in the region. As America’s traditional ally in the Arab world, notwithstanding the hurdles of 911 implications, a high level US role in bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis to the table will be seen by the Saudis as an endorsement of their efforts. This price, symbolic as it may seem, is pivotal to the Saudis reemergence as they must now reassess their role in the region after Iraq was, and the yet unpredictable but potentially volatile future which may result from a nuclear Iran.

James Zogby of AAI said it best: “What is needed now is leadership that solves real problems, reinforcing and rewarding steps made toward moderation and strengthening the role of the Palestinian presidency. Reigning in the Israelis and restoring some degree of normalcy to the Palestinian situation are prerequisites for any future progress.”

The agreement which the Saudis recently brokered between Hamas and Fatah opened the way for a government of national unity in the Palestinian territories, ending months of violent confrontations between the two movements. That unified leadership could now, in theory, begin talks with the Israelis. However, the words on the status of Israel to which Hamas assented in Mecca – that it respects existing agreements with Israel – go no further than previous formulations. Hamas has already moved as far as can be expected, pushing the issue of Israel’s right to exist into the future. But Israel and the United States insist on an explicit recognition of Israel and a permanent renunciation of violence.

These, they know full well, will not be forthcoming. Whether this insistence is a matter of principle, a consequence of the limits of what is politically possible in Israel and America, or, as many suspect, a means of avoiding negotiations which neither Israel or the United States really wants, the result is the same. The only talks possible are between Israel and Fatah, or the Palestinian president, alone, and they are of limited value. There is, it is true, now the possibility of some restoration of the funding whose suspension has caused much suffering. That is to be welcomed.

After six years of inactivity, the Accord is also the latest mark on the road to America’s re-engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. I believe there exists a cautious optimism in Washington that a renewed effort for peace in Palestine might improve both America’s battered global image and its military position in Iraq.

But if we are really honest about restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, then why is Secretary of State is headed for the region without a key tool: clear and unequivocal presidential mandate?  American secretaries of state are at their zenith when they are viewed to be pursuing the agenda of an engaged and concerned president.

Three important factors that will define the parameters of the next round of talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. First, the US should expand on its recently coined “political horizon” by outlining the end result of any future peace: to agree officially that the solution is two states on the basis of 1967 borders. Such an approach would reduce the tension between the two sides that we have witnessed in past missions and diffuse the time factor, which was previously trumpeted by one party against the other. Many parties including America Arab organizations such as the American task force on Palestine have recently advocated this approach, especially on the Arab side as witnessed by the Arab Initiative. Others distressed by Israel’ continued unilateral actions have doomed the Two-State solution in favor of a One-State one.

The second way is a to conclude a clear agreement on freezing all kinds of unilateral Israeli practices in the occupied territories that aim to consolidate the occupation and violate the political, national and human rights of the Palestinian people. especially the settlement expansion regime. No other factor has contributed to the failure of the peace process than the Israeli settlements on Arab lands.

Another major factor to stress, drawn from previous experience,  is the need for a neutral third party mediator. One of the main shortcomings of previous peace efforts has been the almost instinctual and institutional  American bias in favor of Israel. This bias must end, especially on issues where international law is compromised. Arguably, if George Bush is committed to resolving the Israeli-Palestine problem, he needs to make his resolve clear to all concerned, and he needs to do so before Rice departs for the region.

Skeptics and political pundits would be quick to ask why Bush should want to get involved in such talks after years of doing his best to avoid them. Because, in many ways, this is a historic moment for Bush, I believe.

Bush is entering a phase when US presidents traditionally turn their focus to international matters and embark on defining their place in history. Few will look for Iraq as shining example of Bush’s presidency. One may argue that this is a fundamentally self-serving rationale having little or nothing to do with the Palestinians and their plight.

One might also argue that a more loathsome agenda is at work. In an odd twist some of the president’s neoconservative supporters – people are generally known for their unquestioning support of Israel’s political right wing – are backing the drive to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Unfazed by the disaster of Iraq many neocons are now eager to go after Iran. In this equation a renewed peace drive in the Middle East serves as a rallying point for moderate Sunni governments, bringing them back into “our” camp ahead of the looming confrontation with Tehran.

President Bush stands to make history look back at his reign with much kindness if he would pursue his dream of establishing a Palestinian state. After all, he has begun the most important step when he became the first and only American leader ever to envision of the establishment of a Palestinian state. He should remind himself and everyone else of that vision.

Dr. Aref Assaf