April 21, 2004

The Bush-Sharon Summit

I was traveling the day after the Bush-Sharon summit and for a while thereafter.

So apologies if I'm a little late to this party.

The morning after their meetings, at a train station on my way to catch a flight, I caught glimpses of the headlines from the Guardian and the Independent.

The Guardian had a banner about Bush and Sharon simply ripping up the roadmap.

The Independent had Bush and Sharon reaching their own, private "settlement" [ed. note: cute, isn't it?] on Israel.

Their big headline was accompanied by a huge picture of Sharon and Bush walking towards the podiums at the White House--with Sharon pacing purposefully ahead appearing to lead the neo-conned kid down some special (and so private) lane of the road(map).

With both men dressed in white shirt and blue tie (matching the colors of the Israeli flag!) and flag-pins dutifully affixed to their respective lapels--it was too good a picture to pass up...

And if the British press was having such a field-day--imagine how it was all going down in Riyadh, Cairo and Damascus!

Of course, as Oxblogger David Adesnik has pointed out cogently, the reality is much more complex.

But still, this time, there was more than just the merest grain of truth to how lefty anti-Israel British media outlets played the story (see below).

Unfettered right of return, as we've all known for years, means no more predominately Jewish Israeli state--so has always been a show-stopper from Tel Aviv and Washington's perspective.

Ditto the '67 borders were always going to be open to some territorial adjustments--including the likely fact key settlement blocs would remain under Israeli control.

And, as Colin Powell and Richard Armitage have stated, you can perhaps (if barely) reconcile Bush's blessing of Sharon's Gaza pull-out plan and statements on the right of return and settlements with the roadmap (more on that below too).

But there are two major issues with all of this that have barely been discussed in the blogosphere: 1) the role of the U.S. as "honest broker" and 2) the role of "creative ambiguity" in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

The Honest Broker Role

Let me put the first one this way to all you peace process junkies out there:

What do Madrid, Oslo, the '94 Agreement on Gaza and Jericho, Oslo II, the Hebron Agreement, the Wye River Memorandum, the Sharm-el-Sheikh Memorandum, Camp David II and Taba all have in common?

They were all multiparty talks with the U.S. (or other third parties) shuttling between the Palestinians and Israelis as something of an honest broker.

Now, flash back to the Bush-Sharon meetings of last week.

Forgive me if I've got this wrong--but I'm under the impression that the Palestinians were not even consulted about the outcome of the Bush-Sharon meetings.

Given how, as Walter Rusell Mead writes today in the NYT, it is widely perceived in the Middle East that we don't give two damns about the plight of the Palestinians (this is also the key reason theocratic barbarians like UBL, who themselves really don't give two damns about the Palestinians, are blessed with a larger recruitment pool), might not it make sense to at least inform the Palestinians about highly material changes to the roadmap?

Now you can tell me Arafat is a horrific terrorist kingpin not worth talking too.

And that you don't like the smell of Qurei much either (though Dennis Ross appears to like him!)

But folks, sooner or later, you have to make a good-faith serious effort to find Palestinian interlocuters and clue them into your plans rather than strike side-deals with the Israelis.

Otherwise, how can you be viewed as an impartial and effective middle-man for both parties?

Forget Arafat--who, as the old quip goes, "has never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity."

Might Bush not have found a couple persons in the Palestinian Authority worth, at the very least, clueing in regarding his new understandings with Sharon?

Just, you know, to ensure all parties (even if they didn't agree), were at least being informed about material changes to the roadmap regarding highly sensitive so-called final status issues like settlements and right of return.

The Role of Creative Ambiguity

Dan Drezner, also reacting to David's excellent post, writes:

"Here's the question -- in matters of diplomacy and world politics, is it always the right thing to make explicit what had been implicit?

One can make the case that an end to hypocrisy is an intrinsically good thing in world politics. However, international relations is also an arena where -- in the short term -- perception matters just as much as reality. While consistency and clarity can bolster an actor's reputation in world politics, ambiguity and, dare I say, nuance also have their advantages in bargaining and power projection. There are clear tradeoffs at work here." [emphasis Drezner's]

Well of course it's not always the right thing to make explicit what had been implicit.

Think "creative ambiguity" in the Kissingerian mold.

A paradigmatical example is the 1972 Shanghai Communique.

For instance, even some who view the "one China" formulation as an absurd fiction agree that it served its purposes during the Cold War:

"Beginning with the Shanghai Communique of 1972, the United States declared its understanding that both sides of the China-Taiwan dispute agreed that there was but one China. At the time of the Shanghai Communique, this was true in an odd sort of way. Both the Communist government of Beijing and the authoritarian government of Chiang Kaishek's Kuomintang agreed that there was one China, and they both insisted it was theirs. The United States used this cute "one-China" formulation as a way of avoiding the issue. Anyway, the Cold War was on, and U.S. officials believed they needed China's help in containing the Soviet Union. If the price was a certain ambiguity and even some deception on the subject of Taiwan, so be it."

As diplomats-in-training are often thought, "creative ambiguity" is often critical in breaking deadlocks.

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the biggest example of "creative ambiguity" is, as is well known, simply the omission of the particle "the" in a key part of Resolution 242:

"Emphasizing further that all Member States in their acceptance of the Charter of the United Nations have undertaken a commitment to act in accordance with Article 2 of the Charter,

1. Affirms that the fulfilment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:

(i) Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict..."

Note the reference is simply to "territories," not "the territories."

Palestinians and Israelis have, for decades now, both accepted 242 as the basic "land for peace" formulation that butresses both pre and post-Madrid negotiations.

The former read it to mean all the Territories occupied in 1967.

The latter, of course, only some of the Occupied Territories.

And such ambiguity has allowed, over the years (hard to imagine where we sit today), a good deal of forward movement on the peace processing front.

If we had been explicit, back when 242 was being debated, that major settlements would remain--well, does anyone believe 242 would have passed?

That the Soviets would have gone for it?

Or the Palestinians?

Another example of such ambiguity, of course, deals with the right of return.

A thoughtful reader once asked me what the difference was between Taba 2001 and Geneva 2003. I responded many months back--but here is the key part exerpted below that is relevant for today's discussion:

"There are two main differences. First, and unlike at Taba, the so called "right of return" issue was settled. At Taba, both sides read into the old UNGAR 194 per their respective biases with the Israelis stressing the Palestinians "wishing" to return (per the actual text) to Israel proper (1948 borders) with the Palestinians speaking (per subsequent resolutions) of an inalienable right of return. That critical issue had been left unresolved at Taba."

Now, of course, Drezner (or, more precisely, some of his commenters--Drezner doesn't give us his view) might say that it's good that there is no longer such ambiguity.

Now the Palestinians know that the right of return ain't happening.

And that some settlements will remain beyond the Green Line post any general settlement.

What refreshing honesty and lack of "hypocrisy"!

The Palestinian Reaction

Problem is, of course, that the Palestinians aren't going to suddenly, all jolly-like, roll up our sleeves and now get around a more pragmatic negotiating table.

The thinking won't be, great, Bush and Sharon have been good enough to clarify the parameters of a future deal! And they even let us know about it in a public press conference too--how sweet of them not to keep it under wraps!

Especially since there were more creative bridging proposals, that would not have threatened Israel's existence in its 1948 borders, on right of return that now appear dead or palpably ignored (see my earlier post on Yossi Beilin's Geneva proposal and/or a compensation fund for '48 refugees).

Another major problem?

Well, per the very text of the "Road Map" itself, Bush and Sharon appear to have pre-empted (at the very least per the agreed stages of the roadmap if not the ultimate substantive arrangements reached) the previously agreed framework whereby, per the Phase III of the Roadmap and pursuant to a Second International Conference, the parties were to:

" endorse [an] agreement reached on an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and formally to launch a process with the active, sustained, and operational support of the Quartet, leading to a final, permanent status resolution in 2005, including on borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements; and, to support progress toward a comprehensive Middle East settlement between Israel and Lebanon and Israel and Syria, to be achieved as soon as possible." [emphasis added]

Right now, of course, the "provisional borders" of a prospective Palestinian state are simply a little piece of real estate called Gaza.

And yet Sharon has gotten concessions (or at least U.S. blessing of them), seemingly in exchange for the Gaza pull-out, on settlements and right of return.

Now, you can say that the Palestinians inability to effectively reform their security institutions is to blame for stalling the roadmap (I would argue that Sharon's unhelpfulness in making more concessions during the Abu Mazen period played an important role too).

But still, if you are going to speed down the roadmap thus (skip forward to Phase III, at least to some degree, re: settlements and refugees without serious, commensurate movement on the provisional borders issue) don't you at least coordinate such a move with the other party to the dispute?

The Stakes

Of course you do--especially at a time when America's reputation in this critical region is at such a lowpoint.

Not because of Iraq (even post-Fallujah), as I've written before contra Josh Marshall.

But mostly, as Walter Russell Mead pointed out today, because of a widespread perception in the region that we don't care about the Palestinians (whether their national aspirations or their "plight," code for house demolitions, curfews, targetted assassinations that often fell innocents in dense urban areas like Gaza, and so on).

Bush and Sharon's summit last week won't help us much on this score, I fear.

Put differently, the road to Jerusalem (read: peace in the Holy Land) doesn't run through Baghdad.

And peace between Israelis and Palestinians is critical to the U.S. national interest--particularly post 9/11.

And, it bears mentioning, just like American and British interests aren't always exactly aligned--neither are U.S. and Israeli ones always in perfect alignment either.

That's not to say Bush gave Sharon everything he asked for.

But he sure gave him a lot of what he asked for.

And he gave it in a manner that further sidelined the Palestinians.

So, all told, I think the Bush-Sharon summit (unless followed by fervent post Gaza-withdrawal diplomacy to get the roadmap moving again) was not in the best interests of the United States--assuming our main goal is to achieve, as expeditiously as possible, a general peace settlement in the region between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria/Lebanon.

A settlement that guarantees Israel's security while providing Palestinians with a real national homeland that merits the appellation of a nation-state.

Otherwise, as conflicts like Israel-Palestine and Kashmir simmer on, the pool of potential recruits who might be lured by UBL's fanatical ideology remains too uncomfortably large (at least for my tastes).

I'm not talking about the theological radicals who want every nefarious infidel out of a region spanning Tangier to Jakarta in some kind of glorious pan-Islamic, Taliban-like Caliphate.

I'm talking about the Mohammed Attas of the world--relatively educated, middle class Cairenes and the like.

It's not just the Palestinian situation that makes their blood boil, of course. It's also limited economic opportunity, autocratic regimes, and so on.

But to think the Palestine situation doesn't have a material impact on al-Qaeda's recruitment pool is to deny reality.

And, therefore, to scuttle effective forward movement on the Arab-Israeli peace process is not in the national interests of the United States (or, by the way, Israel's either).

Let's hope that post-Gaza withdrawal Bush uses that momentum to a) ensure Palestinians don't use the Gaza Strip to launch attacks on Israel proper and b) assuming "a", gets the Israelis and Palestinians together to forge better understandings on settlements and right of return that are jointly agreed, in principle, by both parties.

Yes, even if some of the understandings are a bit, er, implicit. And ambiguous.

It will likely prove better all around.

UPDATE:

Ze'ev Schiff provides further clarity:

"For Sharon, that is an accomplishment because he does not want to conduct direct negotiations with the Palestinians. In the current circumstances, he can claim that Arafat, and with him the entire Palestinian leadership, are not credible partners for negotiations. Sharon even rejects moderate proposals, like the one formulated by the British and Palestinians and meant to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, albeit through contacts with Arafat. Even when there is a tempting security program, but one that requires some negotiations, it will be rejected by Sharon on the grounds it involves Arafat.

That has allowed Sharon to raise his proposals for unilateral steps, like the disengagement from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank. After all, if Arafat is removed and an alternative Palestinian leadership emerges, there won't be any logic to unilateral steps. If a pragmatic, stable Palestinian leadership comes to power, Israel will not be able to argue it cannot negotiate with it. It's obvious to Sharon that with the rise of such a different leadership, pressure will form, including from Washington for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Such pressure will not come as long as Arafat is in control. Everyone will talk about the road map but its execution will take place in unilateral steps. Therefore, Sharon's insurance policy from pressure is Arafat's continued rule and his continued presence in the territories. So why expel him?

Negotiations would mean large and painful concessions for Israel, far more than the evacuation of four settlements in Samaria, as Sharon proposes in his disengagement plan. That will certainly be the situation after the completion of the separation fence. In such negotiations, Jerusalem, the large settlement blocs, and the dozens of other settlements will certainly come up for discussion. The Palestinians will win much more international support in such negotiations. Washington would also not be able to make do with what appears in the current disengagement plan. That is what Sharon wants to avoid or postpone for as long as possible. With his presence in the territories, Arafat is a pawn on Sharon's chessboard."

Indeed.

Posted by Gregory at April 21, 2004 08:05 AM
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