When Colin Powell tried to broker a ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians in 2002, Israel quickly figured out that he lacked solid backing from President George W. Bush. He came home empty-handed, his prestige diminished. Now
Bush's close confidante, Secretary of State Condi Rice, has a slightly stronger hand, but her odds have grown, too.
No sooner had last week's Annapolis peace summit ended than some analysts noted signs that Powell's successor, Rice, and Bush were also on different wavelengths. She has set a goal of securing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before the Bush administration leaves office in early 2009. Her boss kept his enthusiasm in check, calling Annapolis a “hopeful beginning.” He pledged to exert effort, stating that peace is “possible,” but stressing that Israelis and Palestinians themselves had to make it. Bush may not have strayed far from the view he held in 2000, when he faulted the outgoing Clinton administration for trying to make Israel conform to an American timetable.
Rice's big advantage over Powell--and the source of her power--has been her reputation as someone closely in tune with the
president's thinking. Until now, her priorities were assumed to reflect his. Any perception, real or not, that Bush is less than gung-ho could undercut
Rice's Mideast efforts, pushing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations into an uncertain future, possibly with new players on every side. The sad record of US peace envoys shows that regional leaders take them seriously only when they speak for the president. Lacking such authority, an envoy is wasting time.
Even with Bush's full support, Rice faces stiff challenges, starting at home. Vice President Dick Cheney, for one, has never assigned top priority to the Middle East peace process. Within the Republican Party, Rice's mission has drawn strong opposition from two of Bush's most loyal constituencies: the Christian Right and hawkish Jews. Neither group believes that by giving up territory, Israel will gain peace.
In the region, Rice's task is tougher and more complicated. She didn't have to drag Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the table. Both are ready to negotiate, hopeful of reaching a deal by the end of 2008. But for this to happen, they need Rice with them every step of the way. Their joint Annapolis declaration, read aloud by President Bush, rescued the Rice-arranged summit from being a mere photo op. But it gave no hint that the Israelis and Palestinians had bridged wide gaps on core issues that have blocked peace for decades: a future for Palestinian refugees, the sharing of Jerusalem, dismantlement of settlements in the occupied West Bank and a final border.
When Olmert and Abbas try to negotiate past these stubborn, emotionally charged barriers, each must contend with furious domestic opposition. Creative, sensitive and persistent American intervention is required. Already, each man is in precarious shape politically. Olmert's peace moves have estranged his original base of support in the Israeli right wing. Last week's polls showed his Kadima Party, formed by Ariel Sharon, trailing behind both the Likud and Labor parties. Corruption probes and an investigation into the ill-fated 2006 Lebanon war still hang over Olmert's head. While he talks to Abbas, a steady rain of rockets and mortars on Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza reminds Israelis that a peace deal with Abbas doesn't mean peace.
Failing to bring back a document from Annapolis that spells out the core issues, Abbas had little to show as he returned to a bitterly divided and pessimistic society still very much in pain. If Abbas wants a Palestinian state that includes Gaza, he somehow must co-opt or subjugate the militants who now hold that miserable territory in their grip and who ridicule his peace efforts. The new American envoy in charge of restoring security, retired General James Jones, has his work cut out. As previous envoys would testify, Israeli-Palestinian security “cooperation” can be a snake pit of recrimination and mistrust.
Jones and the rest of Rice's team need support from other countries to bolster the weak peace partners. They need Arab governments in particular to keep Abbas and his Fatah party from looking like stooges of the US and Israel. American standing has sunk so low in the Muslim world that US support could count against Abbas. Israelis, for their part, demand assurance that Arabs finally accept the presence of a Jewish state in their midst.
At Annapolis, the assembled Arab foreign ministers made no effort to hide their skeptical wait-and-see attitude about the Bush administration's seriousness. As for recognizing Israel, the refusal of Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, to shake any Israeli's hand at the summit spoke volumes. Many Arabs remain determined to withhold acceptance of Israel until they see it withdraw from the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights.
The prince's demeanor may be explained by the apprehension of domestic Islamic reaction and the Saudis expecting a bill to underwrite the peace enterprise. But it also reflects the extent to which the US and its allies have operated at cross purposes--on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on Iran. Early this year, Saudi King Abdullah pressed Abbas and Hamas leaders into forming a unity government, something the Saudis still favor. The deal held out the prospect of boosting Saudi influence in the Palestinian territories at the expense of Iran. The US and Israel, however, refused to lift the financial embargo imposed in early 2006 after the Palestinians elected Hamas. Even Arab banks shied away. The unity government collapsed, perhaps drawing Hamas deeper into the Iranian camp.
Parties absent from Annapolis--Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas--spent a day as symbolic outcasts from the gathering and cast a large shadow over the event. Their proven capacity to upset the peace process and derail the Israeli-Palestinian drive toward a two-state solution is well known. Iran continues to develop a nuclear program. If Americans hope that moderate Arab states and Israel could be joined in some sort of anti-Iran, anti-extremist compact, Arabs showed at Annapolis that such a vision is, for the time being, unrealistic.
The presence of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair served as one of many reminders of opportunities lost over the past seven years. Blair is the special representative of the Quartet, the grouping of the US, Russia, European Union and the United Nations that's supposed to keep watch over the peace process. More often than not, this grouping has been sidelined by the US, which is determined to be preeminent in the peace process even when there are no negotiations.
With just a year to reach her goal, Rice needs to tap all the Quartet's resources if she wants a successful outcome. Once again, Bush must work with Blair. Rice also must contend with one member of the Quartet that's no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and merely watch. Russia is back, newly rich, eager to regain influence in the region and pivotal because of its relationship with Iran. With its offer to host talks between Israel and Syria early next year in Moscow, Russia could vastly complicate the Israeli-Palestinian peace venture. Israel would be presented with an enticing and risky dilemma of choosing which set of negotiations should take precedence. In the 1990s, the US and Israel veered between the Syrian track and the Palestinian track. Neither produced peace.
Rice's last year in office won't lack for drama.
Mark Matthews, a former diplomatic and Middle East correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, is the author of Lost Years: Bush, Sharon and Failure in the Middle East, published by Nation Books in 2007. Rights: © 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online