Setting the stage

Washington has been abuzz recently with rumors, reports and reflections on the upcoming visit of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen – rumors that his visit portends a significant breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, reports that he comes armed with studies showing a recent Israeli “rush to confiscate” Palestinian land, and reflections on his own growing strength within the Palestinian political establishment.

But as is the case with nearly everything related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the rumors, reports, and reflections are producing more heat than light. “The hallmark of the conflict is that both optimism and pessimism are overstated,” one former US ambassador to the region cautiously noted, “and the same is certainly the case in the current situation.”

It is perhaps with this in mind that the Bush administration has been very careful to understate the importance of Abu Mazen’s White House visit. “This is a consultation with President Bush on the state of the peace process and the roadmap,” new White House spokesperson Scott McClellan told the press last week. Since then, McClellan’s statement has become a mantra.

“The President is looking forward to the Prime Minister’s visit and to their exchange of views on the next steps in the peace process,” McClellan repeated this week. The White House would not even release a proposed agenda for the talks.

But between the stifled yawns, the White House is taking great pains to make certain that the new Palestinian prime minister’s visit is a success, even to the point of directing the White House staff to make sure that a Palestinian flag is on the podium when he appears in public. This new sensitivity comes from reports that Abu Mazen was harshly criticized during a recent Fateh meeting held in Ramallah, for appearing in public with the Israeli flag as a backdrop after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – a gaffe that the White House is certain not to repeat. “Everything is being choreographed very carefully,” one State Department official said. “The last thing we want to do is send the wrong signal.”

The White House views the Abu Mazen visit as a litmus test of the new Palestinian prime minister’s intentions, and of George Bush’s ability to appear even-handed. “Nothing will be done for Ariel Sharon that will not be done for Abu Mazen,” one White House secretary commented privately. She carefully added that the White House views Abu Mazen as an important political figure with a growing power base. “He will be greeted as a visiting head-of-state with all that implies,” she asserted.

“They don’t want to make the Kurtzer mistake,” a State Department spokesperson confirmed, in reference to US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer’s public description of Abu Mazen as “a weak political figure.” The phrase caused considerable embarrassment in Washington at the time. “We spent months making him prime minister and now we call him weak,” this State Department official added. “How dumb can we get?”

But despite the distracting drama of all this tiptoeing around, there is far more at stake during Abu Mazen’s visit than mere appearances. For one, the White House is intent on strengthening Abu Mazen’s political standing by reassuring him that it is willing to press Ariel Sharon for further “political concessions” on the issue of Palestinian prisoners. But the White House is also preparing for the unexpected.

“Our information is that Mr. Abu Mazen is likely to arrive in Washington with a menu of concerns,” a White House Middle East expert stated in an off-the-record interview this week. “He is likely to tell us that it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to implement a ceasefire when there is no freedom to move, and when the IDF [Israeli army] continues to arrest militants. We’re going to have to address that,” the expert predicted.

At issue, according to these White House officials, is Abu Mazen’s growing concern that the fragile three-month ceasefire declared by Palestinian factions on June 29 is being systematically undermined by Israeli military actions – or, more pertinently, inactions. “There is no engagement between the IDF and the heads of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades at the local level in the northern part of the West Bank,” an American official on the ground in the West Bank confirmed this week.

“So while the Israelis are almost buoyed by the progress that has been made in lowering the threats coming out of Jenin and Nablus and Tulkarm, the Brigade’s leaders in those places are becoming increasingly isolated and frustrated,” this official explained. “They have to see a pay-off for their efforts, there have to be real changes on the ground, and so far, particularly in the northern part of the West Bank, that is not happening.”

Washington is also paralyzed by its own lack of information on the internal workings of the Palestinian political structure. In a rare admission of this ignorance, a well-known and self-proclaimed “friend of Israel” on the National Security Council told a group of reporters this week that, “we may well have made a misstep in thinking that by stigmatizing Arafat, we could somehow strengthen Abu Mazen. Just the opposite seems to have happened.”

This misstep is reflected in the public press, where usually even-handed columnists, like the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl, have repeated Israel’s claim that Abu Mazen will have a difficult time overcoming “the constant attempts to sabotage him by his nominal partner, Yasser Arafat.” But the White House now very carefully distances itself from such statements. “It is clear that the current ceasefire is working because of and not in spite of Mr. Arafat,” this National Security Council official ruefully admitted.

Such admissions are not common, and indicate the urgency of White House concerns that the last thing the president needs now is a collapse of the American-backed roadmap – particularly in light of very public controversy over his statements on the Iraqi nuclear program, and the continued drip-drip-drip of American blood expended in Baghdad.

But the still unresolved question is just how far the administration will go to satisfy Palestinian demands – to push Israel to release increasing numbers of prisoners, to force it to announce and implement a settlement freeze, to end its policy of continuing the arrest of militants, to cajole it to dismantle barricades and checkpoints, to pressure it to withdraw from more Palestinian areas, to persuade it to release impounded Palestinian funds, to embarrass it into removing more outposts – each and every one of which is sure to be on Abu Mazen’s agenda when he speaks with George Bush on July 25.

So how far will the White House go to satisfy Palestinian demands? The answer to that question is still largely unknown, although it is clear that President Bush is willing to take some steps to strengthen Abu Mazen’s political position, while reinforcing his own declared commitment to revamping and reinvigorating the peace process. The problem is that Bush believes he is simply politically incapable of pressing Israel on all issues at once.

As a former member of the Mitchell-Rudman Commission put it last week: “I think the administration can pressure Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities, I think they can pressure them to allow Arafat freedom of movement, I think they can pressure them to give back Palestinian money, I think they can pressure them to allow more humanitarian aid, I think they can pressure them to remove outposts – but I don’t think they can do all of this all at once. It is more likely that the Israelis will force the Palestinians to make some nasty choices. Abu Mazen will have to choose one or two items from his menu and be satisfied with it and then go out and sell it.”

The only question that remains is whether that will be enough.