Diplomatic efforts have once again intensified in the Middle East in order to help diffuse the tension and confrontations. And once again, the American diplomats are back in the region, exerting unlimited time and effort to restoring calm.
The only difference, in fact, is that now Central Intelligence head George Tenet and United States special envoy William Burns are here instead of former envoy Dennis Ross (of the last US administration). The similarities between the current approach of these diplomats and the approach used previously by Ross and others are numerous. And for this reason, one can safely say that the ingredients that led to the failure of the previous American administration’s handling of the peace process are still at use in the current American diplomatic efforts to bring regional peace.
There are two main defects to this American approach. The first has to do with an unwarranted concentration on the symptoms and procedures of the conflict, rather than the substance and causes. The current outbreak of violence that the Americans want to stop resulted from peace process’ failure to achieve its objectives, i.e. the exchange of land for peace.
That is why, as long as there is still an Israeli occupation, there will be no peace. And as long as there are no prospects for ending the occupation via peaceful and negotiations means, there is no route for arriving at calm.
The second defect in the American approach is that it is not equally sensitive to the two sides’ legitimate concerns. The way Tenet is trying to implement the Mitchell report is a very clear example of this. Tenet’s ideas have adopted the Israeli understanding of Mitchell’s report. This is why Tenet has been working first on getting the Palestinians to implement those articles in the Mitchell report that Israel wants to see implemented, before discussing what Israel is supposed to do about the other components of the report, such as the cessation of settlement activities and so on.
This American diplomacy’s lack of sensitivity to Palestinian legitimate needs usually stem from an American disregard for international law that is supposed to be the frame of reference for the peace process and its mediation. As before, the Americans are now pursuing a shortcut for achievements in their mediation, by putting pressure on the weaker party (a party, one might add, that has shown in previous exchanges that it can be cornered).
Practically speaking, Tenet might be able – as a result of pressure from him and the Israelis – to squeeze the Palestinian Authority and to get what Israel wants out of it. This is what has been happening the last few days. The question is whether this Authority can deliver on Tenet’s ideas (i.e., security coordination) without Israel delivering the other components in the Mitchell report that made it possible for the Palestinians to accept that report. Practically, Arafat can deliver his people to a cease-fire and can punish anyone who violates it, but only if he is able to tell his people that in return they are getting rewards, such as a halt in the expansion of settlements, an end to the siege and so on.
This last week was just one more illustration of the failure of American diplomacy in the Middle East. It repeated, almost identically, previous chapters in this diplomacy. The Palestinians looked at the Mitchell report as a compromise – one not exactly what they wanted, but one they could live with. The Israelis, on the other hand, could not reject the report, but had major problems with it. The Americans then came to suggest what became known as “Tenet’s paper,” which compromised on the Mitchell report in favor of Israel’s reservations and left the Palestinians struggling to hold on to the Mitchell Report, which was originally their compromise.
This superficial and unbalanced approach on the part of the Americans was partially responsible for the failure and collapse of the original peace process. It will also be responsible for the failure of the current efforts.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is the publisher of the Palestine Report.