(June 27, 1pm)
Thus the "political horizon" laid out by President Bush: The Palestinians can have their Palestine, at least "provisionally," but only after they've turned their 42 percent of the West Bank which will mark its provisional borders, along with Gaza into the most advanced democratic polity in the Arab world. (And never one to dwell on irony, Bush intends to enlist the authoritarians and monarchists of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to tutor the Palestinians in the ways of liberal democracy.) The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland offers a ferocious critique of the new Bush policy, warning that it will lead only to further misery and bloodshed: The U.S. is now "demanding that Palestine become Sweden before it can become Palestine," he writes, and they must achieve this transformation while under lockdown by the Israeli military. The fact that Bush offers nothing concrete by way of guidelines on ending the current cycle of terrorism and reoccupation, Freedland warns, will simply reinforce hard-line views on both sides.
Freedland's view was common among Israeli peaceniks, most of whom saw Bush's speech was an unqualified victory for Sharon. To quote leading Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, "The voice was Bush's, but the hand that wrote the speech was Sharon. The Prime Minister can demand intellectual property rights." Even foreign minister Shimon Peres was reportedly left depressed and angry by the speech. A commentator in Maariv suggests Bush's new policy is unlikely to bring an end to terror or even Arafat's removal, but may instead signal a discreet U.S. withdrawal from peacemaking efforts. That view is underscored by the Economist, which warns that the Bush's approach is unlikely to have any significant impact on the violence, which creates the impression that the President's true intent is to disengage from the messy conflict.
But Haaretz's Ari Shavit broke ranks with many of his colleagues in the beleaguered Israeli peace camp by praising Bush's vision, although not as a peace plan but as a set of war aims. He argues that the demand for Palestinian democracy is part of the administration's plans for wider Arab democracy, starting in Iraq. And that just as Israel won't survive with an authoritarian, corrupt Palestinian state as a neighbor, nor will it survive as a democratic Jewish state if it maintains its occupation. That reiterates the longstanding view of Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, who berated Israeli governments of the left and right for accepting and even encouraging Palestinian authoritarianism. Their argument against him, says Sharansky, was that Oslo required a Palestinian enforcer. But the cabinet minister who had been jailed as a Soviet dissident before immigrating to Israel insists that Palestinian democracy is the only basis for a durable peace.
Arafat Cashes In
It's not only among ponderous Israeli peaceniks that Bush found himself under fire. Even his most dependable European ally, Britain's Tony Blair, openly challenged Bush over the fate of Yasser Arafat. The Europeans see Bush as having blundered by insisting on Arafat's ouster rather than simply on democracy and reform. The Palestinian leader was quick to reap the benefits, calling new elections and allowing an aide to announce that he plans to stand for reelection. And in light of Bush's demands, it's even less likely that any credible challenger will step forward to stand against him. Palestinian academic Khalil Shikaki told a Brookings Institution briefing that as a result of the speech, Arafat is more popular today than he was yesterday. He warned that Arafat remains the key player in Palestinian politics, and reform will be dead in the water if he's made to believe that the U.S. wants to get rid of him no matter what he does from now.
While he dismisses much of the Arab response to the speech as denial from regimes who had invested much political capital in their failed efforts to swing the Bush administration, Shikaki does see some positive steps potentially flowing from the speech. The most important may be for greater U.S. involvement in remaking the Palestinian security services, to create conditions that allow for Israeli withdrawal from PA territory and a de-escalation of violence. Arab leaders may have been shortchanged by Bush, but their domestic concerns lead them to primarily on those nuggets of Bush's speech that allow them to put a positive spin on the policy. Whatever their frustrations, Arab opinion makers also clearly recognize that Bush is their only hope for a solution. Beirut editor Joseph Samaha summed up the view of the Arab intelligentsia as follows: "If the man wasn't the leader of the world's sole superpower, his speech would belong in the rubbish bin. But that is a luxury we cannot afford."
Song of the Doomed?
(June 21, 3pm)
Yasser Arafat is either catastrophically tardy in the conduct of diplomacy, or else he's sensing that he's about to be cut adrift by everyone that matters in the Mideast political equation the Israelis, the Americans, the Europeans, the Arabs and the Palestinian street. In a wide-ranging interview with Haaretz, the Palestinian leader enthusiastically endorses the proposals put to both sides by President Clinton in December 2000 for a final peace agreement a Palestinian state in 97 percent of the West Bank and Gaza with territorial swaps to make up the remainder; shared sovereignty over Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees being allowed to return only to the new Palestinian state. Of course when Clinton first made the proposals, Arafat's response was a sort of grudging "maybe" that, in effect, was as good as a "no." Who knows how things might have turned out differently if his answers to Clinton, back then, had been the same as those he gave Haaretz? If Ehud Barak had been able to fight an election two months later over a concrete peace plan rather than over an intifada? Maybe different, maybe not.
No matter, Arafat insists he can do a peace deal with Ariel Sharon. Maybe Arafat's aides are insulating him from the awareness that nobody's listening to him anymore not the Americans, not the Israelis and not the Palestinians. That's not to deny the extent to which the ideas presented by President Clinton correspond with the likely shape of the eventual political settlement between Palestinians and Israelis. It's simply to point out the mounting odds against the signatures on such an agreement being those of Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon.
Israel's Nightmare is Bush's Nightmare
Thirty six Israelis killed in three days, and Ariel Sharon is forced to act. The problem is that he has few good options before him, and his cabinet is deeply divided. Voices ranging from Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to some senior army officials are questioning the wisdom and viability of the long-term reoccupation of Palestinian cities. And yet April's massive West Bank invasion managed to slow down the rate of terror attacks for all of three weeks. Reoccupation requires large-scale mobilization of reservists disrupting Israeli civilian life, and reentering Palestinian towns runs the risk of major civilian casualties and resultant diplomatic isolation already on Friday, three Palestinian civilians were reportedly killed when tanks erroneously opened fire on a crowded Jenin marketplace. "Operation Defensive Shield" eventually brought diplomatic pressure even from an administration that has been generally supportive of Sharon, and yet it failed to restore Israelis' sense of security in their own cities. There's little reason to suspect a new round of military operations that include longer stays in Palestinian cities will be much different, except perhaps to the extent that they force the militants to confront Israeli troops in their midst rather than civilians inside Israel. And if Israel has now discovered that "Defensive Shield" failed to stem the tide of Palestinian attacks, the Bush administration may be discovering that the diplomacy it initiated in response at the time has also failed to stop the confrontation once again escalating to the point of spiraling out of control.
Back to the Future
(June 19, 12pm)
No wonder President Bush is holding back on announcing a new Mideast policy: Even before they're uttered, his words have already been eclipsed by Ariel Sharon's own new policy. The President has been planning to urge recognition of a 'provisional' Palestinian state as early as September, but the consequences of Tuesday's terror attack that killed 19 people aboard a Jerusalem bus may have forced a rewrite. In response, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has declared his intention to reoccupy Palestinian territory until terror attacks cease and if he keeps his word, that reoccupation will essentially be permanent. That's certainly the way ministers from across his coalition cabinet's political spectrum see the move. After all, there's little reason to believe full-blown reoccupation will end attacks on Israelis those responsible, after all, have repeatedly declared their hostility to any return to negotiations with Israel, believing that "armed struggle" is a more effective strategy. Reoccupation will almost certainly swell their ranks, and render Yasser Arafat increasingly irrelevant. The Oslo peace process is now a thing of the past.
The question before the Bush administration is whether to simply reconcile itself for the foreseeable future to the current pattern of violence in the region and the pressure that creates on U.S. allies in the Arab world or else to accept that pursuing President Bush's two-states-for-two-peoples vision right now will require the international community to act more forcefully to separate them. This columnist is betting on the former. The problem with that option, though, is that the logic of the current pattern of violence is one of escalation, which is exactly what forced the Bush administration to intervene in the first place.
(June 14, 4pm)
Word in the corridors of power is that President Bush will, next week, call for the establishment of a 'provisional' Palestinian state without defined borders and under international supervision. According to Haaretz's Israeli government sources close to Washington, the proposal would set the Palestinians targets in areas of governance, financial accountability and security enforcement, and their performance would be judged by the U.S. That's designed to meet Ariel Sharon's insistence on a 'long-term interim' solution rather than the final-status agreement demanded by the Palestinians, at the same time as restore a political horizon that would give hope to the Palestinian people. But it may include some form of timeline that would make Sharon uncomfortable.
Washington believes after discussions with Egypt and Saudi Arabia that it can find Arab support for this schema, but Lebanon's Daily Star warns that the Bush administration's skittish Mideast policy will leave Arab regime cautious over signing on. Moreover, the repeated pattern of aides rushing to 'clarify' President Bush's utterances on the Middle East has made Arab editors cynical of the spin doctors they're now inclined to take Bush at his word, and they're pretty pessimistic about what he's saying.
The Bush administration may also struggle to convince Israel to end military operations in areas under PA control as Jerusalem Post's Herb Keinon points out, even an provisional Palestinian state would mean no more raids on Ramallah. The administration is also reportedly debating a settlement freeze, to which Sharon is fiercely opposed. Still, the Israeli leader is not particularly worried, according to the Israeli media, because he believes the Bush administration's electoral concerns will preclude it from cracking the whip in the Middle East. And who else is going to rush to boot up a virtual Palestine?
Et Tu, Edward?
It's not only President Bush and Ariel Sharon that believe Yasser Arafat is a disaster whose ouster is essential to generate hope in the Middle East. Edward Said, dean of the Palestinian left-wing intelligentsia, says that even though the call for PA reform and Arafat's replacement is endorsed by elements hostile to Palestinian interests, that doesn't make it a bad idea. For Sharon, says Said, PA reform is a means of hobbling Palestinian nationalism; for Bush well, Bush has no coherent policy at all, and the Europeans aren't much better; for the Arab moderates it's a way of cozying up to Washington; and for Yasser Arafat it's a means of saving himself and his administration of "defeat and incompetence." But the Palestinians have plenty reasons of their own to get rid of Arafat: Said accuses the Palestinian leader of having knowingly provoked a war "whose victims would be mostly innocent people when (he had) neither the military capacity to fight one nor the diplomatic leverage to end it" and it's the third time he's done so. But Sharon shouldn't think he's found an ally. The reason the Palestinians need a new leadership, says Said, is to resist plans being hatched in Washington, Jerusalem, Cairo, Riyadh and elsewhere, and instead mount a non-military struggle against the occupation.
What Does Bush Want?
(June 12, 12.30pm)
Either there's something to the perception popular on both sides of the Mideast conflict that President Bush tends to parrot the line of whichever leader he spoke with last, or else prospects for the U.S. achieving any momentum towards a peace agreement are dead in the water. Indeed, the editors at Haaretz believe Sharon's greatest political achievement has been to bend the Bush administration to his line that the Israelis can't deal with Arafat, and that puts prospects of peace talks on the backburner for the foreseeable future.
The first casualty of President Bush's new position will be the proposed regional peace conference. The President on Monday endorsed Sharon's view that peace talks are premature and that the agenda of any conference should be confined to security matters and a cease-fire. Under those circumstances, Monday's Bush-Sharon meeting was the conference, because none of the Arab states would bother to turn up unless the purpose of the gathering was rapid movement towards a political agreement. Moderate Arab frustration over Bush's remarks was diplomatically expressed in a Jordan Times editorial warning that Washington has sent the region the wrong message, and that President Bush's position leaves the Palestinians without any hope. It also warns that the positions taken by Washington regarding timetables and political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have rendered the proposed regional conference pointless. Secretary of State Powell now has his work cut out for him salvaging a policy of Mideast engagement. That may be why Powell on Monday suggested to an Arabic newspaper that Bush's words hadn't really conveyed what he meant to say.
Arafat Has His Uses
So where does this leave Yasser Arafat, he who these days shall go unmentioned when the U.S. and Israel discuss the Palestinians? Flailing, by all accounts. Bush and Sharon weren't the only ones unimpressed by his recent cabinet reshuffle Arab and Palestinian critics have pilloried Arafat for making mostly cosmetic changes while clinging doggedly to his autocratic power. Does that mean Sharon is about to expel the Palestinian leader from the West Bank? Not necessarily. The respected Yediot Ahoronot columnist Nahum Barnea writes: "What is the point of taking the risk of expelling Arafat when, even if his replacement is a saint, the gaps between him and Israel will remain equally unbridgeable?" This columnist agrees: By securing Washington's agreement that Arafat the obstacle to peace, Arafat becomes useful to Sharon as a reason to avoid negotiations.
Sharon's Lonely 'Peace Plan'
And judging by the vision of peace offered by Sharon in the New York Times on Sunday, Sharon certainly needs reasons to avoid negotiations because sitting down to talk about where to draw the line between Israel and Palestine would expose the extent of his differences not only with all the moderate Arab regimes, but also with the U.S. and even his Labor Party coalition partners. It's not only Sharon's revival of the notion of no talks before violence has ended or his refusal to countenance any short term political talks that puts him at odds with pretty much everyone else who'd attend a regional peace conference; it's his refusal to accept the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. When Sharon says he has no partner for peace, he means he won't talk to Arafat. But given the limits of his own conception of peace, it's true in a far wider sense: Even if Arafat retired to the Riviera tomorrow, there simply isn't a single credible Palestinian or Arab leader who would engage on the terms offered by Sharon. Back to you President Bush?
Uh, President Bush?
Some Israeli commentators believe President Bush shares an interest with Arafat and Sharon in maintaining the current impasse. Sharon needs it because it keeps his limitations as a peacemaker off the agenda; Arafat needs it because it keeps him in power. And, says Haaretz's Gideon Samet President Bush's domestic political concerns militate against rocking the boat at least until 2004. And until then, warns Samet, Bush's inability to master the precision of language required by the complexities of the Mideast will have his aides constantly playing cleanup. And the President's forthcoming policy statement "won't depart from reiterations of Bush's 'vision' of a Palestinian state. It will mostly be cliches of goodwill."
Palestinian Views Hardening
Treading water may now have become the administration's policy in the Middle East, but the waves are likely to get ever choppier. Suicide bombings and attacks on settlers are back up to an almost-daily clip, and the conditions of siege under which most West Bank Palestinians now live are likely to fuel rather than dampen Palestinian rage. Haaretz's Amira Hass warns Israeli readers that a policy being undertaken in pursuit of their security may have the effect of imperiling it in the long run.
Hass's view is confirmed by a new survey of Palestinian public opinion, which found that two thirds of respondents continued to favor suicide bombings and those who support continuing the intifada remained at 78 percent down only five percent from March, before the devastating impact of Israel's "Operation Defensive Shield." Even more alarming is the growing sentiment in favor of a fight for all of "historic Palestine," (i.e. including Israel) rather than simply to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Support for that view has risen from 43 percent to 51 percent.
U.S. Mideast Policy: Look Busy
Cynics may be tempted to suggest that the reported delaying of the proposed regional peace conference reflects a diminished urgency in U.S. mediation efforts, brought on, perhaps, by the Bush administration's postponement of any immediate offensive against Iraq. But those cynics would be wrong or, at best, only partially right. The reason for postponing the conference is that under present conditions and commitments, such a conference would fail dismally to achieve any progress. And a failed conference would be more damaging than no conference at all. The conference idea was originally premised, in part, on the U.S. and its international allies forcefully proposing the broad outlines of a peace agreement based on existing U.N. resolutions, the agreements tentatively reached at Taba and the recent Saudi proposals. The Bush administration, however, remains undecided on whether to outline proposals of its own, and Ariel Sharon has given no indication thus far that he'd accept anything close to what the Arab parties would consider a starting point for dialogue. Trying to bring the parties together at a conference to discuss a settlement would, therefore, highlight the differences between them, which the Bush administration may be politically reluctant to even try and resolve right now. Better to simply tread water. The problem is, the situation on the ground is threatening to reignite the crisis that forced the Bush team to moot the idea of a conference in the first place.
Arafat as Cheese Doodle, Dahlan as U.S. Poodle
(May 30, 5.15pm)
He may be struggling to maintain the affections of his own people, right now, but Yasser Arafat is an unqualified success in the Egyptian snack food market. A new cheese puff named for Arafat's nomme d'guerre and whose bag bears his likeness is reportedly the hot-selling snack in Egypt right now. But will anybody dare import them to the West Bank? Meanwhile, as the Bush administration searches for Palestinian other than Arafat to deal with, they may be applying the kiss of death to the prospects of Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan. According to Israeli reports, the U.S. has approved Dahlan as head of a unified Palestinian security structure and likes him as a potential successor to Arafat. But that may not be the sort of information the ambitious young Palestinian strongman would want spread around the West Bank and Gaza, where he's been engaged in a bitter power struggle. Already, the obstacles facing his ascent are not inconsiderable: As the PA's top policeman in Gaza, he's not exactly a favorite among the rank-and-file Palestinians pushing for a more democratic Authority. And the majority of Palestinians are residents of the West Bank, who aren't necessarily inclined to accept leadership from Gaza. Given the dim view Palestinians have taken of the Bush administration, an implicit endorsement by Washington may hinder rather than help Dahlan.
New Attacks Pose Dilemma for Sharon
(May 29, 5.15pm)
A new wave of suicide bombings and attacks on settlers has left Ariel Sharon facing some tricky choices. The new attacks highlight the limits of the Israeli tactical advantages achieved by "Operation Defensive Shield," and there's a clamor for further action on his right flank. But Washington is trying to restore the fundamentals of a peace process by reforming the PA and restoring its security capability, and a new offensive would put paid to those efforts. But attacks are likely to continue since Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even the rank-and-file of Arafat's own Fatah organization are showing no inclination to heed the calls of the PA leadership to stop terrorism. Indeed, Washington may find that when it sends Messrs. Burns and Tenet to the region later this week to breathe new life into the PA in order to restart dialogue with the Israelis, it's flogging a dead horse. Meanwhile, Israeli chief of staff General Shaul Mofaz has drawn Sharon's ire by suggesting that Arafat be exiled. Frankly, looking at the precipitous drop in Arafat's domestic popularity since being freed from his Ramallah compound, exile would probably restore his standing among Palestinians. But it would be unlikely to resolve Israel's basic problem.
(May 22 3pm)
Today's suicide bombing at Rishon Letzion near Tel Aviv the third in as many days is a sharp reminder of the limits of the optimism surrounding the comparative calm of recent weeks and preparations for a regional peace conference in June. But the current security situation on the West Bank is the tinder for a new explosion of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Unable to rely on PA security structures to stop terror attacks, Israel has settled in for a long-term, de facto reoccupation of most of the West Bank's major cities. Its troops surround those cities and enter them at will, and travel restrictions require any Palestinian wishing to leave one town for another to seek special permission from the Israeli authorities. Businesses moving goods in or out of those towns are forced to unpack their trucks and repack their cargo onto different trucks on the other side of the Israeli checkpoints. Those conditions create a pressure cooker that will almost certainly explode, once again the Palestinian street rallied to Arafat when he was under siege, because he shared their plight. Now word on the street is that Arafat dispatched a number of Palestinians to prison or exile to achieve his own freedom, while his own people remain effectively imprisoned. And as long as that situation persists, Washington and Riyadh could bend Arafat entirely to their will without having any significant effect on the inclination of Palestinian youths to strike out violently. And Hamas is quite happy to play to the sentiment on the streets even when Arafat isn't.
Sharon's Shas Gambit
(May 22, 3pm)
How serious is the Sharon-Shas divorce? Many Israeli commentators suspect reconciliation is inevitable, although they're worried about a high-stakes game that could go wrong. After all, Sharon has alienated the ultra-Orthodox party that has carved itself the role of kingmaker over the past decade, and it's hard to stay in power without them. Still, would an election be so bad for Sharon right now? Or, at least, could there be a better time? He's riding a political high having faced down his most powerful challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, making the former prime minister look as if he placed his personal ambition above the national interest. That earned him points with the Israeli public, as did slapping down Shas, whose habit of demanding extensive financial support for its welfare structures as the price for joining coalitions is resented across the political spectrum. Moreover, Sharon appears to enjoy the favor of the Bush administration. It's not inconceivable that the prime minister is calculating that this could be his best moment to face the electorate.
What Palestinians are Thinking
(May 22, 3pm)
The respected Palestinian Center for Policy Survey Research has released a new study of Palestinian public opinion, which finds that 91 percent of Palestinians support reforming the PA and Arafat's personal popularity is in the doldrums but not for reasons Israelis would find comforting. Although support for suicide bombing is down to 52 percent, 67 percent still believe armed confrontation has been more effective than negotiation in pursuing Palestinian national rights. A majority of Palestinians opposed the deal reached to end the siege of the Church of nativity, and may have helped drag Arafat's personal approval rating back down to the 35 percent figure recorded before Sharon first besieged him last December.
(May 22, 3pm)
More bad news for Arafat in the survey cited above is that Militant Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti's popularity is on the rise at 19 percent, he's the second most popular Palestinian leader (up from 11 percent in December). And if Arafat thought the fact that Barghouti languishes in an Israeli prison was enough to silence his challenge, he has another think coming. Despite Arafat's latest calls for restraint, Barghouti has sent a message from prison urging Palestinians to fight on against Israel. And earlier in the week, it was reported that Arafat's police in Ramallah had torn down giant posters of Barghouti in the town's central square by Fatah militants, only to see them replaced hours later.
PA Reform vs. Israeli Security Operations
(May 17, 2.40pm)
Yasser Arafat's insistence that Palestinian elections must wait until after the Israelis withdraw may be designed to strengthen his hand against domestic challenges, but it's also an effort to redirect away from PA reform, where Sharon had managed to focus it, and on to the unresolved security crisis which leaves the conflict perennially poised on the edge of chaos. The Israelis want to continue to operate inside PA territory in the West Bank, and pooh-pooh the Bush administration's plans to rebuild PA security structures to do that job. Also, they say, an attack on Gaza is inevitable and there'll be no shortage of pretexts: Hamas has made clear that despite pressure from the PA and the Saudis, it plans to send further suicide bombers. But continuing Israeli operations in the West Bank or an invasion of Gaza are likely to impede any progress towards restoring security cooperation, as Washington desires. And Israel's plans to maintain its current stranglehold of Palestinian cities for the foreseeable future suggests that all talk of PA reform may be rendered moot by the inevitable rekindling of confrontation.
Sharon as Arafat's Insurance
(May 17, 2.40pm)
Yasser Arafat is under mounting Palestinian pressure to loosen although not relinquish his own grip on power, but Ariel Sharon may well turn out to be his savior. Not only did the Israeli leader's siege on Arafat that began last December rescue Arafat from the domestic political doldrums, Sharon's repeated insistence that PA reform include Arafat's removal is simply reinforcing Arafat's grip on power the Arab press is full of warnings that any move to weaken the Palestinian leader's role may be part of an Israeli-American plot. And when Sharon floats the preposterous suggestion that the "free world" must "force" an "interim government" on the Palestinians (tailored to Sharon's specifications, no doubt), it's Arafat rather than the PA reformers that benefits.
PA Reform Battle: Arafat Wins a Round
(May 15, 11.00am)
Ariel Sharon is, as ever, willing, to make "painful concessions" but only, as ever, after certain preconditions have been satisfied: in this instance, fundamental reform of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Indeed, Sharon said, he would negotiate only with a 'new authority,' by which he means one not led by Yasser Arafat. But Arafat, not always known for his political agility, has quickly turned the tables on Sharon. In a speech to the Palestinian Legislature, he admitted "mistakes" on the part of his administration and called for new elections. Smart move, because there's little doubt that he'd easily win those, and thereby moot any further talk of removing him as part of a reform process. Instead, it would put Arafat himself in charge of reforming the PA. Meanwhile, Sharon's Labor Party coalition partners aren't backing the prime minister's peace perspective. Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has resurrected the Clinton proposals discussed at Taba as the basis for a final agreement in the near future. And Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is proposing that Israel negotiate a deal on these terms with the international 'quartet' the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N. That would remove PA reform as an obstacle to progress on a peace agreement, since the international community would provide the necessary guarantees required by Israel. Peres's favorite Palestinian interlocutor, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), is reportedly pushing the same idea on the Palestinian side. All of which suggests those "painful concessions" may be on the table a lot sooner than Sharon intends.