Is Bush avoiding a peace deal while in office?

Another futile envoy


By securing the appointment of former British prime minister Tony Blair as Quartet envoy to the moribund Palestinian-Israeli “peace process,” George W. Bush has ensured that there will be no progress towards a settlement until after he leaves office.

[This is an Arab view. What’s bad for them is good for Israel.]

Bush does not want a settlement based on agreement over the disposition of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967 because he does not want to have to seriously press Israel to cede virtually all of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If he were to do so, Bush would mortally wound his Republican party ahead of the 2008 presidential and congressional races and harm the party’s long-term prospects. If he were to confront Israel, its US lobby, which has huge clout with both political machines and electorate, could very well turn against the Republicans.

This means that Bush must guarantee that none of the envoys involved in Palestinian-Israeli affairs will displease Israel by intervening.

Bush has evaded the peace broker role ever since he took office in 2001 and is not ready to assume it now, at a time his authority is diminished and his approval rating is sinking.

Blair’s appointment was welcomed only by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Britain’s European partners were not enthusiastic and Russia was reluctant to approve. But both did under US pressure. Israel, naturally, was happy with the choice, whereby Blair would replace former envoy James Wolfensohn who resigned in 2006 in disgust over Israel’s punitive and destructive actions against Palestinians.

Blair has long been a friend of Israel and can hardly be considered a neutral figure who can adopt an evenhanded approach to the issues dividing weak Palestinians and powerful Israelis. While prime minister, Blair appointed Lord Michael Levy, a fund-raiser for Labour, Jewish and Israeli charities, as his Middle East envoy. Blair’s choice hardly demonstrated fair-mindedness. He would have been harshly criticised if he had chosen a British citizen of Palestinian or Arab origin, or a Muslim, for this post.

Blair did not join in sharp European criticism of Israel when criticism was appropriate. For instance, Blair refused to condemn the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Jenin in the spring of 2002. He also refused to call for a prompt cessation of hostilities in Israel’s air, land and sea offensive against Lebanon last summer and went along with Bush in boycotting and isolating the Palestinian Authority once Hamas-led governments came to power after the 2006 elections.

However, Israel was not best pleased when Blair opposed its isolation and harsh treatment of late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and refusal to deal with his successor Mahmoud Abbas. Blair also supported the missions to the region of EU’s envoy Javier Solana, and opposed Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian militants and political figures. Blair also constantly tried to convince Bush to engage in peace brokering. Blair’s aim was, apparently, to avoid a rift between Europe, which sees the Middle East as its backyard, and US, which does everything Israel wants.

Unfortunately, Blair’s policies have prevented Europe from taking bold stands against Israel, independent of the US, and have encouraged Bush to continue giving full support to Israel. The most dangerous Bush policy has been the administration’s rejection of the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections and the ostracism and sanctioning of the Hamas and national unity governments. This blatant interference in internal Palestinian affairs led to the Hamas revolt in Gaza and the Fateh coup in the West Bank. By dividing the Palestinians, Bush and Blair have destroyed prospects for a deal between the Palestinians.

Blair has been assigned the limited task of helping to build Palestinian institutions and reviving the Palestinian economy, devastated by more than a decade of Israeli military campaigns, deprivation and sabotage. But he will not be charged with restarting negotiations on a final status deal between Palestinians and Israelis, because this job has been reserved for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

However, she has not been able to achieve an iota of progress since she took over from Colin Powell, who could not even persuade Israel to halt its deadly offensive in the West Bank in the spring of 2002.

According to US officials, Rice, Abbas, and Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert will be operating on a separate, second track to resolve differences over borders, Palestinians expelled from their homes since Israel’s creation in 1948, Jerusalem and control of resources. This division of effort, unfortunately, weakens Blair’s ability to deal with the political components of institution building and economic recovery, endeavours which Palestinian rights campaigner Hanan Ashrawi said the Palestinians could handle by themselves. On this she is absolutely right.

Blair’s and Rice’s missions are both complicated and complemented by the effort of Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, who has been trying to reform the Palestinian security services and promote the disarmament and disbandment of factional militias. Former head of the Iraq Survey Group, created to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction after Bush’s 2003 war on Iraq, Dayton succeeded Lieutenant General William Ward who tried but failed to achieve mission objectives.

In a May testimony to Congress, Dayton said that the goal of US security assistance to the Palestinian Authority is to “advance Israeli-Palestinian peace via the roadmap”. Unfortunately, according to Flynt Leverett, who drafted the roadmap, it is a fraudulent document drawn up to give the Bush administration some credibility with the Arabs at a time he was preparing to invade Iraq.

Dayton has been providing training and non-lethal equipment and supervising the disbursement of US assistance: $16 million to improve Karni crossing from Israel into Gaza, $40 million for the Presidential Guard, and $3 million to the Palestinian Office of National Security.

However, US aid has its limits. Dayton told Congress that “nothing we do to strengthen the Palestinians’ security capability will be targeted against Israel. The Presidential Guard will not become a threat to Israel”. This means that the guard will not defend Palestinian areas or activists when they come under Israeli attack. Nothing must interfere with Israel’s freedom of action.

In April, Dayton, a political novice, produced several “benchmarks” which he expected Israel and the Palestinians to implement in May and June. Since Dayton asked Israel to remove checkpoints, roadblocks and other obstructions to Palestinian freedom of movement, end closures and halt construction of the wall complex and settlements, Israel flatly rejected the “benchmarks”. The list was promptly dropped by the Bush administration as too hot to handle. Israel is now doing its utmost to undermine Dayton’s efforts by obstructing his attempts to upgrade Palestinian security forces while continuing its raids against Fateh and other activists in the West Bank.

While Bush’s trio of envoys will not have his backing to take any initiatives Israel does not like, their very presence on the scene will obstruct other external efforts to ease Israel’s harsh occupation regime and compel Israel to negotiate in good faith a viable and just final status agreement with the Palestinians.

July 5, 2007 | 7 Comments »

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