Some positive movement

As expected, the successful ceasefire and relative calm on the Israeli-Palestinian front have managed to attract considerable positive and sympathetic diplomatic attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and particularly to the Palestinian internal situation. In addition to the tens of foreign ministers and prime ministers who visited Israel and Palestine in the last few months, President Bush has received both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and followed up on these two summits with a working visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Two significant developments have taken place in American diplomacy in the Middle East. The first is an increase in the amount and level of attention and the second is an increase in financial support.

A major significance of the Abbas-Bush meeting for the Palestinians is that President Bush, in his statement to the public during the press conference after the meeting, said things that are contrary to some of the assurances that he gave to Sharon last year. By doing this, he moved the American position back into compliance with international legality.

The most prominent example is when President Bush stated that "any modifications to the border of 1967 should be agreed upon by the two parties". That is an important contrast to the previously mentioned assurances to Sharon, in which Bush said that the settlement blocs are a reality that must be taken into consideration when the borders are discussed between the two sides.

One of the things about which Abbas complained to Bush is the way that Sharon is handling his intention to disengage from Gaza unilaterally. In particular, Sharon is not cooperating with the Palestinian side at all, including not giving the information necessary to enable the Palestinians to plan for the day after. He is also insisting on maintaining the closure regime on Gaza by denying Palestinians safe passage from the West Bank to Gaza, as well as an airport, seaport, or land crossing that would enable Palestinians free movement to and from Gaza.

Condoleezza Rice came with the intention to ensure that the withdrawal process is smooth and constructive. She left behind two envoys: General Ward, who is following up on the security aspects, and Mr. Wolfensohn who is concentrating on economic aspects and needs. Wolfensohn has been explicit in expecting cooperation in the process of disengagement. He also expects Israel to allow for conditions that are conducive for economic recovery, including the movement of Palestinians and their goods.

This significant American return to active Middle East diplomacy is a very positive step that can be attributed in part to successful Palestinian efforts. It can also probably be attributed to the fact that Washington realized that Sharon failed to end the conflict by force in spite of the long opportunity that the US gave him to do so.

In spite of these encouraging developments, things are not yet moving positively on the ground. First, there has not yet been progress on the Israeli plan for disengagement, i.e., Israel is still planning to keep the same restrictions on the movement of Palestinians. Second, there is no sign of American success in convincing or pressuring Israel to stop expanding settlements and the illegal wall in the West Bank. Third, and as a result of these two facts, there is little chance for the recovery of the Palestinian economy. From a Palestinian perspective, the criterion for judging the failure or success of America’s Middle East diplomacy is whether or not it will allow the resumption of peace negotiations toward the implementation of the roadmap, which includes stopping the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.