Written by Aluf Benn
INSS Insight No. 49, March 20, 2008
American officials explained that the Administration has not given up hope of reaching agreement on the core issues in the conflict but that it is logical to focus now on a parallel improvement in the situation on the ground. If the reality does not change, they argued, any agreement reached would be purely theoretical.
There are probably two reasons for the change in Administration priorities that Rice is trying to bring about. The first is that there is no sign of any progress on the “core issue” discussions between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas and between Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmad Qur’ei. The chances of reaching an agreement by the end of 2008, as proposed at the Annapolis Conference, now seem remote – and the Bush Administration is seen as responsible for yet another failure in the peace process.
The second reason is that the Administration wants to help PA Prime Minister Salem Fayyad, who is focusing on improving conditions in the West Bank. In recent months, Fayyad has waged a public relations campaign in the United States that stresses the need to help Palestinian moderates create economic and educational opportunities in the West Bank. He has stressed the need to remove roadblocks and other security restrictions imposed by Israel.
However, the first phase of the Roadmap demands actions that imply significant domestic difficulties for both parties. Israel is required to freeze completely construction in the settlements, to evacuate the outposts set up since March 2001, to refrain from attacking Palestinian civilians, and to reopen Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians are required to reorganize the PA’s security forces, to act openly against “individuals and groups” planning and carrying out terrorist operations against Israelis, and to dismantle terrorist infrastructure and capabilities. Not surprisingly, both sides have consistently avoided carrying out their obligations since the publication of the Roadmap five years ago.
This stalemate on the ground has frustrated Rice, and she expressed her feelings upon her return from her Middle East visit. In a conversation with reporters, she said: “Not nearly enough has been done to show that Israelis and Palestinians understand or act … It’s clear to me that without the implementation of Roadmap undertakings, without an improvement on the ground, it will be very difficult to sustain the process.”
The American columnist David Ignatius, who is close to Rice, cited a “senior Administration official” claiming that Israel has not evacuated even one outpost and has done nothing to relax the roadblocks that cause daily humiliation to the Palestinians. Another complaint was that the IDF does not rely on PA security forces and prefers to act by itself on the ground. It is noteworthy that the background conversation with the columnist focused on criticism of Israel, in contrast to the more balanced approach that Rice took in her public briefings.
In her visit to Israel, Rice asked to convene the Roadmap monitoring mechanism for the first time since Frasier’s appointment in January. But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak strongly objected to a trilateral forum and proposed instead that Frasier convene separate follow-up meetings with the two parties.
Rice was not persuaded and Barak responded by sending the head of the Ministry’s Political-Military bureau, Amos Gilad, rather than coming himself. The Palestinians were represented by Prime Minister Fayyad, who has ongoing contacts with Barak on current issues.
Olmert has not publicly expressed any disagreement with Rice, but his declarations and actions show that he has reservations about the shift in the Annapolis process that Rice is trying to promote. He announced that he would persist in the political process with Abbas despite the escalation in Gaza, thereby emphasizing his focus on “core issues” rather than on improving day-to-day conditions for Palestinians.
Following the attack on the “Merkaz Harav” Yeshiva in Jerusalem in mid-March, Olmert publicly authorized the construction of 750 housing units in the settlement of Givat Zeev after working in recent months to stop or at least slow down new building beyond the “Green Line.” In so doing, he ignored the expected criticism by the PA and the U.S. Administration of his decision, which was taken only a few days before the monitoring meeting chaired by Frasier.
The chances that roadblocks will be removed and that restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank will be eased also appear non-existent given the military escalation in Gaza and Israeli concern about a “third intifada” in the West Bank. Israel is not ready to stop arresting or killing terrorist suspects in Palestinian cities and to rely instead of the PA security forces. It also objects to their being trained and equipped as a military force.
Rice has severely criticized Israel in the past; in her speech at the Annapolis Conference she compared the roadblocks in the West Bank to the racial segregation she experience as a child in Alabama, although she balanced her remarks with criticism of Palestinian terrorism. However, the current differences are being portrayed as a real rift between the Secretary of State and the Israeli leadership.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that the administration will opt for a public confrontation with Israel or claim that Israel rejects peace. President George Bush is due to visit Israel in May for the state’s 60th anniversary celebrations, and Vice President Dick Cheney, Rice’s rival and leader of the conservative camp in the Administration, will soon arrive in Jerusalem.
Bush will almost certainly refuse to allow differences on outposts and roadblocks to overshadow demonstrations of friendship for Israel. The Administration will also take into account Olmert’s domestic political constraints and will make every effort to prevent the collapse of his government.
Washington understands the Prime Minister’s desire to reassure the right-wing following the “Merkaz Harav” attack and therefore contented itself with watered-down criticism of his decision to renew construction in Givat Zeev. As long as Olmert continues his talks with Abbas, he will continue to enjoy the backing of the White House.