By Ali Jarbawi
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
The Bush administration's Middle East policy has been a failure. Not only has the promised "new Middle East" not seen the light of day but, Iraq, the country Washington had designated as the fulcrum of democratic change in the region, has instead become a chaotic battleground costing thousands of Iraqi and tens of American lives every month.
With Iraq a swamp dragging down the administration, an always complicated region is becoming ever harder to handle for the United States. By developing its nuclear technology, Iran is bluntly challenging Washington. Syria is exerting varying degrees of influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. The Lebanese government, which is supported by the West, is facing a serious internal stand-off with Hizbullah. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is accepted in the West, now has to contend with a government formed by Hamas that the West shuns.
The Israeli government, meanwhile, is creaking from its defeat in Lebanon last year and corruption accusations. Even moderate Arab countries that rely on US support are complaining of the ineptitude of the administration in adapting its policies to the complications of the region.
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), which was formed to investigate the situation in Iraq, was damning in its assessment. Contrary to the prevailing "wisdom" of the administration, the report affirmed the interrelatedness of the region's conflicts and problems and identified the resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict as central. While US President George W. Bush does not intend to follow the report's recommendations, he could not ignore it completely either. So when announcing his "new" Iraq policy, a policy at odds with the ISG findings, he also sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a tour of the region to garner Arab support.
As always when the US is at a loss in the region, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict receives renewed attention. This time was no exception. The Quartet's "road map" was officially launched nearly four years ago, but was completely ignored by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and the US did little. Now, all of a sudden, Rice has proclaimed herself interested in resuscitating the plan and remembered that Palestinians are suffering and deserve an end to their suffering in a state of their own.
Yet despite this sudden recollection, Rice had nothing new to offer. She met Israeli ministers Avigdor Liebermann, Tzipi Livni and Amir Peretz, held discussions with Abbas, came back to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, roamed various Arab capitals, and announced in every place her desire to find a political solution. But she didn't have a plan. She came, she said, to discover and listen, but the only things to discover were the increasing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and yet more Palestinian suffering.
Nevertheless, in return for promising to increase her efforts to find a solution, she received the desired Arab support for Bush's "new" Iraq strategy. Moderate Arab countries held up her promise as justification for their continued support of US policy. These "moderates" welcomed Rice's announcement of a three-way summit with Abbas and Olmert in the coming few weeks, because what's important to them is change, even if it is only a facade, that promises a "positive possibility" for the future.
Is there really a "positive possibility" in the general American attitude toward achieving a political solution? If "positive possibility" means seeking to achieve an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders (with minor and agreed-upon adjustments), and resolving the issue of refugees according to international resolutions, then yes. But this is not a priority of the current administration. Like previous administrations, perhaps even more, the Bush administration tends to adapt to what Israel wants.
Israel wants a long-term transitional stage. It is about to finish building the wall that lets it keep what it wants from the West Bank and leaves Palestinians the overcrowded leftovers. These leftovers will then form the body of a temporary state contained behind the wall. If the Palestinians and Arabs accept that, Rice will continue shuttling to seal "the deal." Other than that, there is no "positive possibility" for her to offer.
Should Palestinians and Arabs accept this "temporary" solution then? Is it as good as it gets? It should not be. The American regional predicament grows deeper every day. If Arabs were to stand united, they would be able to gain more than this minimal Israeli offer. Palestinians and Arabs should avoid any transitional solutions. They should avoid a return to a negotiating process that is open-ended, non-sequential and non-binding.
There is an alternative. Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, should insist on implementation of the Arab Initiative presented in Beirut at the Arab League summit of 2002. It provides a good basis for any negotiation process, and presents a clear and agreed-upon final goal that would shape the stages and mechanisms leading to this.
But if Palestinians and Arabs return to the same negotiating route as before, Rice, Bush and Olmert will take them for another "ride." That, unfortunately, is the most likely scenario and will be used as justification for transforming this "temporary" state into a permanent one.
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University. This commentary first
appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter publishing contending views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.