Happy smiling faces?

A new crop of billboards has gone up at strategic locations around Ramallah — that is, at the entrances to the city, where diplomats from donor countries is most likely to see them.

The second target seems to be the cadres of the Palestinian Authority’s various Ramallah-based ministries.

The billboards, sponsored by USAID, show headshots of various young people. Next to their faces are [in Arabic] the words:
“I’m very happy…about my new school…”etc.

This promotional campaign must have cost many, many tens if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars.

The new schools (seven of them, constructed by USAID and handed over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2009) are great.

These USAID ads are patronizing, stupid and embarassing.

A few hours after these billboards were visible, the U.S. announced that invitations were being sent to Israel and to the current Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to come to Washington D.C. on 2 September for a [re]-launch of direct talks.

As the inevitable became apparent, Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour wrote on The Hill blog that “Palestine’s investment community remains in a wait-and-see mode. More peace talks will not spark the significant investments required to build an economy that can serve an emerging state.  Serious state-building economic development requires land, water, access, movement, ports, and spectrum, which Israel remains in full control of today. My clients, and many like them, refuse to be misled, yet again, by another round of empty talk from politicians as settlements go up in East Jerusalem Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to enter direct negotiations (yet again) in Washington on September 2 … The lead-up to these talks saw both Palestinian and Israeli leaders touting economic growth as a prelude to moving the political process forward.  The growth they cite is hard to comprehend … the economy is micro-managed by a foreign military. Yet leaders, foreign and domestic, laud the temporary West Bank economic growth that results from a brief respite in a harsh crackdown. Very few in the U.S. Congress have done their homework to gauge if US policy is helping or actively impeding the prospects for peace. One brave congressman who has gone the extra mile is Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA). Rep. Baird sets a prime example of a legislator willing to challenge the current unhelpful US path. At a recent speaking engagement organized by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Baird advocated that his colleagues visit the West Bank and Gaza and see firsthand the results of the current policy. He noted that ‘they’re certainly ignorant about what’s happening on the ground in Gaza because they’ve never been’ and they’re nearly as ‘ignorant about what’s happening in the West Bank because they haven’t been to a checkpoint…”  Sam Bahour’s analysis is posted here.

Meanwhile, an interesting article written by retired U.S. Army Colonel P.J. Dermer in the Journal of Palestine Studies — found via a mention by Clayton Swisher on his Al-Jazeera blog, here, notes that “The problem [in Israel-Palestinian relations] is not about persuasion or the over- or under-estimation of this or that.  Bluntly put, it is that both Washington and the Mitchell team are too far removed from the real attitudes of the main parties and the pertinent nuances of the situation on the ground. What is behind the lack of momentum between Israelis and Palestinians is not simply the divide over Israel’s settlements or future borders or anything else on the proverbial time-honored peace process matrix.  Settlements are indeed an important issue, but in the complex chessboard of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no single issue and hasn’t been for some time. At the core are the fundamental human dimensions of the conflict in all their complexity and emotions. But these fundamental facets apparently remain out of view both in Washington and within the Mitchell team and are therefore not being given their due attention. This being the case, developing the means to forge a realistic way forward is also lacking, if not impossible”.

Col. Dermer wrote, in his article, that “In stark contrast to my heyday in the territories in the late 1990s was the absence of official American personnel in almost any capacity. It was obvious that we still do not have a presence on the ground where it counts most. In fact we have not had a presence since 2000 and the early days of the second intifada. And regardless of the publicity surrounding the West Bank’s much improved security environment, when diplomats and other USG  [U.S. government] officials do travel, they do so in flashy and obtrusive armored vehicle convoys, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan. The visuals are not lost on the Palestinians. Other international officials are not very present either—except at the American Colony Hotel bar in East Jerusalem in the evening. This is something that has not changed in many years. Wannabe peacemakers still pass the night away in hopes of catching the eye of someone important, or expounding their latest Nike ‘just do it’ idea to forge Middle East peace and win the Nobel Peace Prize. Regarding internationals, I thought it was interesting that only a few Palestinians I spoke with in Jenin knew about the efforts of former British prime minister Tony Blair’s team. Elsewhere in the territories, knowledge of the mission was virtually nonexistent”. [n.b. – here I would note that every educated job-seeker in the West Bank is well aware of the Blair team, however…]

Other points Col. Dermer makes:

* “I was in Palestine in 1994 when Palestinian national flags were first seen on rooftops flying freely and not as an act of protest. Nationalist slogans and posters were on every wall. It was truly a new beginning full of promise for the future. I went to great lengths to get one of the first flags. Today, the flags flying and slogans scribbled on walls and on IDF concrete outposts mostly come from political factions, militias, and religious supporters. I did find one or two true patriotic actors at local levels who were willing to talk about how things could be, but as noted earlier, local cooperation is entirely personality dependent. Nowadays PA leaders are mainly concentrating on their own wellbeing and on getting access to Abu Mazin and the constant stream of senior international interlocutors”…

* “President Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009 and the appointment of yet another U.S. special envoy [George Mitchell] were initially welcomed by PA officials and citizens alike. As with many in the Arab world (other than Iraqis for the time being) there was still a profound belief that if America really wanted something to happen it would make it so. Mitchell’s appointment fostered a bit of short-term relief because, among other things, it relieved Palestinians of the onus of having to do something themselves, particularly while the political process is deadlocked. However, I did hear Palestinians say that it would be actions on the ground—not the speeches and the high-level private meeting circuit—that would be needed to carve a path out of the present quagmire. So far, they have proven right: On my most recent trip, large billboards and banners in Arabic across the West Bank proclaimed, ‘One Year with Obama, so What’s Changed?’ [n.b. – this was in February] And on both visits I was asked various versions of the question: What good is a Washington-sponsored peace process if there is nothing competent institutionally within Palestine to support it besides those with guns and new uniforms?”…

* “… the ongoing intra-Palestinian struggles that are out of view of most USG officials due to the above-mentioned restrictive
security travel policies still in effect.  When U.S. diplomats are able to meet with Palestinian interlocutors, it is only for official meetings for a snapshot period of time.  In a world where personal relationships are everything, these policies and methodologies inhibit this critical cultural dimension.  In Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, I lived and worked with my counterparts.  While at times this entailed a considerable amount of risk, it was the only way to develop the relationships necessary to understand and work on the complicated issues at hand.  But current U.S. diplomatic practices allow at best only episodic glimpses, not the in-depth views needed to develop the context necessary to keep Washington abreast or develop viable, not pie-in-the sky, options to move forward. In a real sense, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv live within their own Green Zones”… [and what about Ramallah?]

* “Israelis and Palestinians have made it clear they are not interested in robust, complicated third-party foreign mechanisms or truckloads of gadfly advisors looking to pad their resumes.  The nature of this conflict requires a few focused and experienced individuals in the right places, well versed in the regional and local complexities.  This requirement might pose problems, as this kind of expertise is a commodity sorely lacking in the USG [U.S. Government].  Given the multiple ongoing conflicts we are engaged in and the nature of our own institutions, there is an operational deficit at present.  But absolutely essential to this proposal is that the anachronistic and risk-averse embassy and CONGEN [Consulate-General] force protection measures must be loosened” …

* “In sum, the many wide-ranging discussions in which I engaged during my recent visits to Israel and the West Bank, coupled with my own long experience, convince me that this is no time for a traditional Washington-dictated, top-down, envoy-focused process in and of itself — regardless of what the regional actors, Europeans, or Washington’s beltway circuit may advocate.  Moreover, whatever the real and perceived successes of the USSC [U.S. Security Coordinator], it is unlikely that continued focus on the security element alone will carry the day.  The USSC’s steady bottom-up approach, however, does have the potential for even bigger payoffs if supported and exploited appropriately.  The results of the U.S. military-led efforts across the governmental spectrum in Iraq and Afghanistan support this thesis.  At the end of the day, it is not about what Washington wants.  The saying ‘we cannot want it more than the parties themselves’ remains as relevant as ever.  After thirty years, I still live by it in my current business the Middle East.  In his grandiose memoir, Dennis Ross acknowledged this when he noted that those sitting at the negotiating table during the Clinton and Bush years — himself included — were disconnected from the realities and the dynamics on the ground.  What he did not note was that there were those in the USG in various official capacities who did understand those realities and dynamics, but Ross and his U.S. colleagues simply refused to listen. This being the case, key context about the nature of the problems faced at the table was missing, with the result that real bridging proposals and operational methodologies were unobtainable. Palestinians and Israelis paid the price for the U.S. team’s inexcusable hubris. In order for this not to happen again, vigorous efforts must be made to get the right personnel in the right places on the ground in a coordinated effort that goes beyond the high-level secret meeting circuit to work all aspects of the conflict. Ideas developed in a vacuum in presidential speeches or policy meetings in Washington in and of themselves will not work. The results of a Middle East peace process that has followed this misguided strategy are clear enough”…

This Journal of Palestine Studies article written by retired U.S. Army Colonel P.J. Dermer can be read in full here.

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