June 28, 2003

Middle East Roundup Pretty positive

Middle East Roundup

Pretty positive news coming from the Middle East on the Israeli-Palestinian track this weekend. First, key groups including Jihad Islami and Hamas have signed on to the ceasefire. Palestinian representatives like Saeb Erekat are trying to get smaller factions like the PFLP to make statements that they will also abide by the ceasefire. Meanwhile, Hamas is being described as being at somewhat of a crossroads in this WaPo piece.

Elsewhere, Glenn Kessler helps explain why the Israeli pullout from portions of Gaza is a significant gamble that could lead to more positive developments on roadmap implementation or, alternately, leave the peace process in tatters if the Palestinian Authority can't clamp down on terror operatives if some individuals/factions attempt to violate the ceasefire. On that note, there are some reports that al-Aqsa, PFLP and DFLP are refusing to accept the "hudna". That said, I think these factions will come around in the coming days/hours.

And then there is this Steve Weismann piece from the NYT that, frankly, I greeted with some skepticism. It spoke of an "unusual degree of harmony" across the Administration regarding the direction of Middle East policy. This had always been one of my major concerns about Dubya's approach to Middle East peacemaking.

Let me explain. As much as I have tremendous respect for this President--it is fair to say he is not deeply acquainted with many of the details and subtleties surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. So he needs to rely, to a good degree, on his advisors to provide him with sage policy counsel.

The problem was (is?), however, that he would get Foggy Bottom style (emphasis on retention of U.S. role as "honest broker") advice from Powell one day and go with it. Then, the next day, he would talk to Rummy or Cheney who would likely hammer Arafat as little better (if at all) than UBL and then, the President, perhaps symphatizing more with the Israelis regarding their 'homeland security' issue--would take a more staunchly pro-Israeli position.

Some observers said Powell played to Dubya's "head" and Cheney/Rummy to his "heart", ie. Powell explained how our Israel policy impacted our regional position writ large while a Cheney or Rummy would speak strictly in security terms outlining terror operations and appealing to Dubya's post 9/11 sensitivity to the wanton killing of innocent civilians.

Recall, for instance, when Sharon was making large-scale incursions into West Bank cities like Nablus, Ramallah or Bethlehem. One day Dubya would publically tell him to withdraw without delay in an angry tone. Seemingly the next day Sharon was, famously, a "man of peace." Now, at the end of the day, I don't really have an issue with Dubya's approach as long as he picks a reasonable one and sticks to it.

But, too often, Dubya was careening from one policy posture to another seemingly based on whether he had last gotten off the phone with Dick Cheney or Colin Powell. This confused the key protagonists, other regional players, and our allies. It was not a smart way to organize a coherent approach to Middle East peacemaking. In short, it probably hobbled U.S. peacemaking efforts somewhat at certain junctures.

So I was skeptical when I read Weismann's piece about a newfound harmony pervading Middle East policymaking circles around the President. But, after talking to someone in Washington who follows these issues closely, I became less skeptical. It appears, as Dubya has now put his personal prestige squarely on roadmap implementation coming off successfully, that a message has gone out that the backsniping, carping, leaks, and bureaucratic backstabs need to come to an end (or at least go into abeyance). All the better to maximize efficient policy implementation with a motivated Administration speaking with one coherent voice to the key parties.

This "harmony", of course, could breakdown at any stage. But, for now, we have Condi Rice as Dubya's personal emissary. And she, ostensibly, carries the same messages Powell would if he were out there the week before or after her. This despite the fact that Condi's NSC advisor on the Middle East, Elliot Abrams, is up there with the John Boltons, Scooter Libbys and Doug Feiths on the uber-hawk side of the aisle.

So far, so good. Now let's see if it lasts. But, for now, I think judicious observers have to give Dubya strong marks for his nascent Middle East peacemaking foray since Aqaba.

UPDATE: A ceasefire declaration may be delayed as hudna wording gets battened out.

Posted by Gregory at June 28, 2003 09:26 PM
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