Safe side engagement

It appears as if the Bush administration has finally reached its moment of decision on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the wake of the American triumph in Iraq, the conflict in the Holy Land has been repositioned as problem number one for Washington’s foreign policy. But will President George W. Bush rise to the challenge and prove his determination and toughness on the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire, or will he make do with the lower intensity “conflict management” that he has adopted until now?

On the surface, all the ingredients are there for a courageous diplomatic effort to stop the bloodshed and push Israelis and Palestinians toward a renewed peace process. There are high expectations for change from the two conflicted societies, fatigued after over 30 months of continuous violence. There are political debts to pay to America’s allies in the Arab world and London, who supported and participated in the removal of Saddam Hussein and begged Washington to deal with the Palestine issue. There are the prime ministers in Jerusalem and Ramallah, who pledge their commitment to peacemaking. And unlike in Iraq, where the United States encountered strong opposition from many countries to its planned regime change, there are no real opponents to the Bush vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, security and prosperity. Regional extremists are at their low point, and the rest of the world follows the American lead.

All these factors are well recognized in Washington and throughout the Middle East. At this point, however, the Bush administration prefers not to take the plunge, but rather to remain on the safe side of diplomatic daring. Its policy formula could be termed “semblance of intervention” or “safe-side engagement.” It looks like the real thing, with presidential speeches, an internationally accepted peace plan (the roadmap), and high-level trips to the region. But so far, it has stopped short of moving Israelis and Palestinians beyond empty gestures.

The model of post-Iraq American intervention is not new. It was invented by the elder Bush administration in 1991, when the United States used its coincidental victories in the Gulf War and the Cold War to drag Arabs and Israelis to the Madrid Peace Conference, which launched a first-ever direct peace process. Madrid and the ensuing negotiations, from Oslo to Camp David, have not ended the conflict. Yet they brought about a decade of relative calm and better stability in the region, and managed to delimit the areas of dispute between Israel and its two adversary neighbors, Syria and the Palestinians, so that the blueprint for any future settlement is on the table.

The younger Bush administration refrains from grand gestures and prefers to move the process in a “bottom-up” manner–starting from mutual small steps, which are supposed to lead to larger steps, until both Israelis and Palestinians restore their shattered confidence and are ready to discuss the tough issues. This approach is presumably tailored to the absorptive capacity of the rival leaderships, as it delays their tough political struggles at home. However it carries a great risk of disruption, since any progress is measured in inches at best. Thus the public can hardly feel the movement, while adversaries of peace, or stubborn leaders, are able to derail the process with relatively little effort. At the same time, the responsibility for any failure lies with the quarreling duo, while the Americans can walk away unharmed.

Upon his arrival in Jerusalem last Saturday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to avoid friction and conflict and emphasized agreement on the need to start implementing the roadmap. He called upon the Palestinians to uproot terrorism and the Israelis to ease the Palestinians’ humanitarian and economic hardships. The larger issues discussed in the roadmap–which sets a three-stage, three-year plan to establish a Palestinian state and solve outstanding disputes–were shelved for the time being.

One can argue that Powell has no real choice, as he faces two difficult interlocutors. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is all but committed to peacemaking and “painful concessions,” but only in the far future; right now, his gestures are timid, as he demands changes in the roadmap and seeks to avoid political trials at home. His record puts his sincerity in doubt: he has thus far successfully blocked any peace plan during his term. His government has avoided any real move to restrain settlement growth in the West Bank and Gaza, despite its repeated half-hearted pledges to do so. Israelis feel they are winning the war, and this is not a good recipe for compromise. And last but definitely not least, Bush’s perceived support for Israel helps him win crucial Jewish votes and contributions as he readies himself for his reelection campaign.

On the other side, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) still lacks serious authority; he could not even host Powell in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, for fear of the shadow of his leader Yassir Arafat. It is doubtful whether Abu Mazen will be able to rein in the terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza and fulfill Sharon’s tough demand for “100 percent effort” on security. Moreover, craving legitimacy, Abu Mazen will have great difficulty compromising with Israel.

Given these hurdles, no wonder Powell and his master in Washington are reluctant to take big risks. But their cautious approach may deliver a stillborn vision. Bush has proven his ability to take considerable diplomatic and even military risks–on missile defense, transatlantic relations and Iraq, to name a few–but he appears to lack this determination on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. While solidifying America’s commitment to the two-state solution as none of his predecessors ever did, Bush has refrained from expending serious political capital to implement that vision. His prudence may strengthen the forces on both sides that only want to prolong the status quo.

Aluf Ben is diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz daily newspaper.