All the right things

In his speech last week on Israeli-Palestinian issues, President George W. Bush for a change said all the right things. Indeed he, PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas are all beginning to do the right things. There does not appear to be any more attractive or even feasible alternative course of action on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda. These are grounds for guarded optimism.

Yet all three are weak leaders whose chances of success are extremely low and this is cause for pessimism.

Now that Abbas and his able prime minister, Salam Fayyad, are unencumbered by the need to accommodate Hamas in the West Bank, they are committed to tackling the vital task of internal reform within the Palestinian Authority’s security and other institutions. Olmert has enhanced and stabilized his coalition at least for a few months until the Winograd commission issues its final report. He is desperately in need of a strategic achievement that will garner him public support. Hence he has begun to make the kind of gestures–prisoner release, amnesty, transfer of tax monies–Abbas needs to restore his own credibility. And Bush has now weighed in with talk about financial aid, institution-building and an international meeting to launch a peace process once the PA is in better shape.

But to no one’s surprise, none of the three is yet engaged in the really heavy lifting, and it’s doubtful they will be soon. Abbas, who needs the PLO more than ever as a policy vehicle in view of his government’s doubtful legal status within the PA, has not even begun to reform the fossilized decision-making institutions of the Palestinian national movement he heads, even as he burns his bridges with Hamas with angry rhetoric. Fayyad is liable to be hurt more than helped by the administration’s exaggerated adoration. Olmert cannot hope to make an impression on Abbas’ constituency until he resumes in earnest dismantling outposts (something Bush reminded him to do, but so gently as to preclude any sign of American pressure) and planning the dismantling of settlements, and until he frees Marwan Barghouti and other non-Hamas heavyweights–tasks that still appear likely to overwhelm his coalition.

As for Bush, in view of his record over the past six and a half years it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that last week’s speech was, like previous pronouncements on Israel-Palestine, just talk. His presentation seemed designed more to show his Quartet partners–whom he needs on board for dealing with Iran and Afghanistan–that he’s not sitting idly by while the Middle East burns. His determination to keep boycotting Hamas hardly corresponds with the policies of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two key Middle East allies whose cooperation is vital and who counsel keeping channels of communication open because eventually a new unity government will become necessary. He can hardly expect the Saudis to "send cabinet-level visitors to Israel" under these circumstances.

Bush’s aides quietly acknowledge that his democratization program for the region is a shambles, yet he apparently doesn’t recognize that his strategy of undoing the damage of democratization in Gaza by relying on Mohammad Dahlan and General Keith Dayton merely helped cause greater damage in the form of the Hamas takeover. And as he acknowledges obliquely in the opening sentence of his speech, Iraq remains his real preoccupation in the region.

Even Bush’s endorsement of an international "meeting" in the fall has begun to look hollow–downgraded in importance by his spin-masters, unlikely to be attended by many key Arab players and chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rather than the president himself. Perhaps most important, a fall conference is far too early to congratulate Abbas on the fulfillment of his reform obligations, even with the help of Tony Blair. It’s even too early for Olmert to report on making a serious effort to roll back the settlements.

Yet the timing issue is likely to be immaterial. Under present regional circumstances and bearing in mind the difficult political situations in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah and the strengths and (mainly) weaknesses of the leaders in question, the prospect of a successful confidence-building and institution-building process leading up to the declaration of renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO sometime in the coming half year is far-fetched. Not only are Iran, Syria and Hamas determined to thwart this design, but Egypt, Saudi Arabia and much of the Quartet harbor doubts about Abbas and Fayyad as exclusive leaders.

Olmert, who is apparently preparing an alternative strategic track by renewing negotiations with Syria, appears to know this. Bush is reportedly not as opposed to this direction as his rhetoric might indicate. Yet Abbas may well turn out to be our last chance before Hamas takes over the West Bank as well as Gaza. That’s why, for all its drawbacks and defects, it’s important that we try to implement the new Bush policy approach.