A failure of leadership

The United States, we are informed, is upgrading its contacts with the Palestinian Authority. Both Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). But the meetings are virtually meaningless. None of the principals–neither President George W. Bush, whom Powell and Rice represent, nor Qurei’s mentor Yasser Arafat, nor Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon–has a realistic strategy for peace. None is motivated enough to turn these meetings into a new point of departure in the process.

One recent illustration regarding each of these leaders will suffice.

Bush’s failure, or, better put, abstention from the process, reached its focal point in June of last year, when he launched the roadmap at the Aqaba summit. Here was his opportunity to do what his Republican predecessors had done so well- -Richard Nixon in 1974-75, when he sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to shuttle between Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus for months to facilitate force separation and lay the foundation for Egyptian-Israeli peace; and the elder George Bush in 1991, when his secretary of state, James Baker, shuttled back in forth to put in place the Madrid summit.

In George W. Bush’s case, Rice, though not secretary of state, is the current equivalent of Kissinger and Baker in that it is she who is seen to speak in the name of the president. To give the roadmap a chance to work and at least stabilize the situation, Bush in June 2003 had to empower Rice to remain in the region until further notice, shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and invoke the president’s authority, i.e., threaten and apply pressure on both sides, until the roadmap began to work. Bush even indicated that he understood the principle involved when he declared that the US now had to "ride herd" on the Israelis and Palestinians to ensure their compliance. While neither Arafat nor Sharon would easily cooperate, the new man on the scene, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), was someone the Americans ostensibly could work with.

Following the Aqaba summit, Bush sent Rice to the region to ride herd for one day. In her meetings in Ramallah and Jerusalem, no one dared say no to her. Then she departed, and hasn’t returned since. Abu Mazen’s government lasted barely four months, thanks at least in part to Bush’s lack of support. An American election year kicked in, and Bush now finds himself up to his neck in problems in Iraq. The only reason he is sending Rice to meet Abu Ala is to try to buy a little Arab good will, against the backdrop of Iraq and the demoralizing effect of Bush’s April 14 final status commitments to Israel. To emphasize just how distant she intends to remain from this process, Rice is meeting Abu Ala in Berlin. The US will continue to pay lip service to the roadmap and, more recently, to Sharon’s disengagement plan. But at the critical moment last June, Bush’s policies in the Israel-Arab sphere completely failed his own "riding herd" test. Basically, Bush never had a plan.

Neither does Sharon. Disengagement, which has its merits, is described openly by Sharon as being intended to fill a vacuum in the process. First Sharon helped create the vacuum; more recently he has embraced disengagement for all the wrong reasons. Worse, his apparent disdain for any constructive interaction with the US and Israel’s neighbors regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace is illustrated by the incredibly naïve peace plan that he sent National Security Adviser Giora Eiland to present to Washington some weeks back: Egypt cedes territory from Sinai for the Palestinian state and in return Israel cedes one-third as much territory from the Negev to Egypt and enables Egypt to tunnel under the rest of the Negev and link up to Jordan! Suffice it to say that Sharon never asked either the Egyptians or the Jordanians, who can only wince at this incredible scheme, and that the Americans, to their credit, reportedly laughed Eiland out of the room.

Finally, there is Arafat–not Abu Ala, who makes little pretence about bowing to Arafat’s authority. On May 15, Naqba Day (and Israel’s independence day on the global, rather than Hebrew, calendar), Arafat spoke at the muqataa, live on Palestinian television. The international community "didn’t have the right" to create Israel, he told his audience. Palestinians would never give up the right of return, which is sacred. He signed off with a call to Palestinians to "terrorize your enemy."

In one short speech, Arafat managed to reiterate all the volatile views that have led so many people in Israel, the Middle East at large and the international community to conclude that he is not a candidate for a viable peace process. And lest we be told that this was a particularly emotional speech required by the commemoration of a day of tragedy for Palestinians, we should recall that these are by and large the same positions taken by Arafat since Camp David II in mid-2000.

Bush, Sharon, Arafat: a failure of leadership. All the rest pales in relative significance. Including the Rice-Qurei meeting in Berlin.