Rice visits the region, more of the same?

Daily News Egypt
9 Min Read

At a time when lack of leadership bounds, the Jordanian monarch delivered what could be easily described as the speech of his lifetime. Speaking to a joint meeting of the US Congress and to the American people, he laid down so eloquently, forcefully and above all convincingly the moral case for a much stronger American role in the Middle East peace process.

The warm reception and the standing ovations aside, King Abdullah’s speech will unfortunately change very little, if anything, on the ground, both in Washington and in the region. In fact, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sets foot in the region some two weeks from now, the odds against any effort on her part to achieve a Palestinian /Israeli breakthrough will be as tremendous as ever.

The failure of the latest meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to produce any tangible results is a case in point.

Assuming that Rice is serious, and those close to her insist that she is, the Secretary will need to find a way not only to overcome the lack of confidence that precipitated between the two sides over the last six years – thanks in great part to Mr. Bush’s ill-advised hands-off approach to Palestinian/Israeli politics – but also to the lack of effective, let alone charismatic, leadership on both sides.

On the Palestinian side, there isn’t probably a time in recent memory when the domestic political scene was more volatile, if not explosive. Fatah under the helm of Abou Mazen is as weak as ever.

After flirting with the idea of calling for general elections, one that he was destined to lose, Abou Mazen and Hamas accepted a Saudi-brokered deal to form a national unity government, averting in the process what could have easily turned into a bloody civil war.

On his side, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert couldn’t be weaker. He is not only waiting for the results of a government probe into Israel’s military embarrassment in Lebanon last summer, as well as a criminal investigation into his role in a banking deal, but is also politically challenged by rivals and foes, old and new, ready to jump to the Israeli top post.

Washington also lacks leadership. Its reaction to the Mecca Agreement was nothing short of disappointing, yet very indicative of the lack of seriousness on the part of this administration and the limited extent to which it is willing to go in pushing for a final settlement of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Rather than jumping at the opening provided by the agreement, American reaction ranged between unconstructive ambiguity and outright rejection. According to the US, the Fatah / Hamas agreement fell short of meeting the conditions of the Quartet and the international community; an argument that is not necessarily shared by other members of the Quartet.

Daunting as it is, Rice’s job is all the more complicated by challenges back home. While her upcoming visit to the region this month is her second this year, with a third scheduled for some time in April, the Secretary of State seems to terribly lack the rather indispensable support, let alone active engagement, of the White House and Congress.

President Bush, it seems, isn’t at all willing to spend any of his already diminishing political capital on a problem that he has so long neglected, actually dismissed, and hence one that he had no chance of solving in his waning days in office, assuming that he wants to.

For all the talk about American efforts, the White House is actually where it has been for the last six years: managing the conflict, rather than trying to solve it, thanks in great part to men like Dick Cheney and White House chief advisor on Middle East issues, Eliot Abrams. President Bush is also, and for the first time in his tenure, facing a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, one that is not only capable but also intent on challenging his ever weakened administration and on playing a proactive role on issues, both domestic and foreign. As the campaign season for the 2008 Presidential elections gets underway, the situation will only get worse. And the Palestinian/Israeli issue is just one example of that.

Middle East peace is an issue in which Congress has over the years been an active player, regardless of the occupants of the White House. And while Democratic members of both the House and senate, as well as a growing chorus of Republican members, have not in the last few months been shy to defy Bush and to publicly voice their support for the recommendations of the Baker/Hamilton report, they only paid a lip service to one central recommendation of the report; that suggesting a stronger American role in solving the Arab/Israeli conflict.

In fact, Congress itself has done nothing so far but to move in the opposite direction.

Chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee Congresswoman Nita Lowey, hardly a hardliner, has already placed a hold on American assistance to the Palestinian Authority, citing the shortcomings of the Mecca accords.

Gary Ackerman, the powerful chairman of the Middle East Subcommittee of the House International relations Committee, has called for a hearing a few days ago that turned into an orchestrated bashing of the Fatah / Hamas agreement. Such moves are indicative of the prevailing logic in Washington, with little attention or none paid to how disastrous similar moves in the past had proven to be for the livelihood of the ordinary Palestinian and hence to the prospects of peace.

Much of the talk these days in Washington is about altering the Saudi/Arab initiative of 2002 which calls for peace and normal relations between all Arab states and Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

Arab Ministers convening in Cairo a few days ago, however, rejected the notion and dismissed any speculations about amending the initiative to accommodate Israeli reservations on two central components; Palestinian refugees’ right of return and the final borders.

For a change, Arab Ministers decision this time around was the right one. The Saudi/Arab initiative is a solid proposition for a fair and just peace in the Middle East, the only form that can last. It has been approved and adopted by all Arab countries, including Syria, in a dramatic reversal of more than fifty years of Arab rejectionist policy. As it stands right now, the initiative provides Olmert with the cover he needs to seriously engage in the peace talks.

As a result, Olmert should accept the terms of the initiative for what it is. On their side, Arabs should continue to flatly refuse any pressure to accommodate the Israeli reservations, for accepting it would simply mean compromising on final status issues in return for nothing.

Dr. Mohamed Nabhan Swelam is the director of the Middle East Development Research Center and formally the Director of the National Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

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