U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was still looking polished, well-groomed, nice and disciplined yesterday and today in Jerusalem — but it’s now crunch time in Palestine.
A story by the Associated Press says that after Rice’s meeting with Israeli officials on Sunday — over two hours with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then another meeting with Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister, as well as one of the richest men in Israel) Ehud Barak, who was leaving for his own trip to Washington immediately afterwards — a “U.S. State Department official” indicated to journalists that the American-proposed Middle East Peace Conference (or, now downplayed, “meeting”), that was supposed to take place in November, might be postponed “because of gaps between the sides”.
The AP is reporting that: ” ‘This is going to take some time’, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations. ‘This is going to require a lot of hands-on American diplomacy. These are really tough issues’.”
The issues are tough, but not as tough as the Israelis.
The AP says that Barak, after meeting Rice, “later issued a statement saying the [Israeli] military’s freedom of movement in the West Bank was a ‘fundamental principle that must be demanded in the future as well’.” The AP noted drily that these comments “came despite long-standing Palestinian demands for a reduced Israeli presence in the West Bank”.
On Monday, Rice went to Ramallah to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. AP reports that there was a “security scare”: “Her trip was briefly delayed by what turned out to be a false security alert. Her convoy stopped at an Israeli fire station after Israeli police said they spotted a suspicious vehicle near a crossing point into the West Bank. The convoy moved on after 15 minutes”. The AP report on Rice’s last two days in the Mideast is here.
This “false security alert” could have been just a good bit of theatre — setting the scene, and atmospherics.
I wonder if Dr. Rice has ever seen The Wall — up close and personal? It would be nice if she decided to take a little tour while here … Seeing it in person is like getting hit, hard, in the solar plexus. It generally has a quite transformational impact.
Yesterday, the Israeli Government Press Office put out the following official cabinet communique: “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed US Secretary of State Dr. Condoleeza Rice’s visit to Israel and other countries. He said that the visit would last several days and would be devoted to talks with us and with others regarding contacts between us and the Palestinians ahead of the international meeting due to be held in the US in late November. Prime Minister Olmert noted that in recent months he has held talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and has reached a large degree of understanding with him regarding the outline of the contacts as they need to be held, mainly that the process of dialogue between us and the Palestinians must be balanced, careful and considered with the intention of reaching a joint declaration during the international meeting – such a declaration having never been a condition to the holding of the meeting. Prime Minister Olmert said: ‘We are very interested that, following the international meeting, if there is a declaration, that its bases be approved by the relevant parties, both with us and the Palestinians, and that discussions begin thereafter regarding the possibility of the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, without defining an exact timetable for the beginning and conclusion of the process. I believe that setting a timetable in advance for such a process would create more problems than it would resolve and would create obstacles; we must be very careful in setting timetables. We discussed this at last week’s Cabinet meeting. In the coming weeks, I certainly intend – in the Cabinet, the Security Cabinet and in other forums – to hold discussions in order to enable us to advance the contacts with the Palestinian side in order to – in the first stage – reach a joint declaration that will would deal with the foundations that form the basis for the establishment of a future Palestinian state” …
Whew! That makes it sound like it will take years, many years, many long years, to get to the point of the real establishment of a Palestinian state. Rice gives the strong impression that she would like it to be sooner.
UPDATE: In what the Associated Press is describing as one of her most forceful statements yet, Rice said Monday in Ramallah that ” ‘Frankly, it’s time for the establishment of a Palestinian state … I wanted to say in my own voice to be able to say to as many people as possible that the United States sees the establishment of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution as absolutely essential for the future, not just of Palestinians and Israelis but also for the Middle East and indeed to American interests’, she said. ‘That’s really a message that I think only I can deliver’ … ” The AP added that Rice said “ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a top priority of the Bush administration”, and that she “praised Israel and Palestinians for making their ‘most serious effort’ in years to end the conflict” … The AP said that Abbas and Rice met for 3 1/2 hours Monday at his headquarters in the West Bank City of Ramallah. The AP update on Rice’s meeting with Abbas in Ramallah is here.
Olmert also announced yesterday, according to the cabinet communique, that “Over the weekend, I decided to appoint Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to chair the team that will oversee the contacts with the Palestinians.”
Editorials in this morning’s Israeli Hebrew-language newspapers mull over this move, according to an English summary provided today by the Israeli Government Press Office: “Yediot Ahronot comments on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to appoint Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to head Israel’s negotiating team ahead of the Annapolis meeting with the Palestinians. The editors believe that the latter was concerned over the Prime Minister’s and Minister Haim Ramon’s talks with the Palestinians and, ‘suspected that the two of them had raised the other side’s expectations sky-high and feared an explosion at the summit’. The paper suggests that Defense Minister Ehud ‘Barak forged a link with Livni against Olmert’, because, ‘Both of them have reservations over the summit – Livni due to her concerns [n.b., it’s not clear what these concerns could be] and Barak due to his lack of confidence in the Palestinian leadership’. The editors venture that the Foreign Minister’s appointment is an effort on the Prime Minister’s part, ‘to strengthen support for the negotiations’, and maneuver her into ‘an inside position from which she will better understand the pressures’. The paper similarly notes that ‘Barak will travel to Washington soon; if he does not soften up here, he will soften up there’. Alternatively, the editors suggest that the Prime Minister might be trying to maneuver Foreign Minister Livni into a position in which she will be the one who raises expectations, while he lowers them. Ma’ariv compares the situation on the eve of the Annapolis conference with that on the eve of the 1991 Madrid conference. The editors assert that ‘At the Madrid conference, there were strong leaderships, a strong superpower and a faith in peace’, and aver that ‘All of the changes since then have been for the worse’. The paper speculates on the results of the Annapolis conference for Israel: ‘At best – a diplomatic breathing space; at worst – pressure for concessions and chilly international relations’.”
In any case, the AP report this afternoon added that “Abbas aides said they were concerned that Rice cautioned over the weekend against expecting breakthroughs during her meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders … ‘With her statement yesterday, Dr. Rice reduced the Palestinian hopes for the conference’, said Nabil Amr, an Abbas adviser. ‘We didn’t expect her to come with this direction. The U.S. is a party to this conference, and we expect it to exert efforts to make it succeed’. Abbas would also complain to Rice about recent Israeli land expropriations in the West Bank, Amr said. ‘This spoils the positive atmosphere that accompanied the call for the fall conference’, he said. Amr referred to land seizures for a road project that Palestinians fear is intended to tighten Israeli control over strategic West Bank areas near Jerusalem. Israel says construction is not imminent and is meant to ease Palestinian movement”.
The AP report on Rice’s last two days in the Mideast is here.
Well, this is just a brave attempt at Palestinian spin, but hardly anybody will be fooled — hardly anybody had any high hopes or expectations — though many would like to be proven wrong, and even pleasantly surprised.
Yesterday, en route to Israel, Rice told journalists, according to a State Department transcript, that “Look, I don’t think that — you know, everybody keeps expecting the moment when the United States says, oh, here’s what we think. I don’t really think that that’s helpful. What’s helpful is to use the parties’ ideas and if we do have ideas to use our ideas to help move them forward. But this is really still very much about their bilateral negotiations because going back to where we were in February of ’07 when I came out here shortly after the Mecca agreement and I think there was very little confidence between the parties, that on top of the fact that they had really not even discussed these issues since the Camp David summit collapsed, and that led then to the second intifada”.
Despite some denials, the ideas that are being discussed are exactly the same as those that were put on the table then [by Ehud Barak’s team, as it happens] — and labelled as a big, huge, enormous, and unprecedented concession to the Palestinians that Yasser Arafat again failed to seize upon.
This is from a BBC report of 28 September 2000 — the day of the infamous Ariel Sharon visit to the “Temple Mount” in Jerusalem that sparked Palestinian protests that were so violently repressed that the Second Intifada broke out:
“At the beginning of the year , according to Arab diplomats, the two sides [Israelis and Palestinians] moved towards some kind of compromise – the one that was alluded to by the Israeli Deputy Defence Minister, Ephraim Sneh. This would give the Palestinians sovereignty over a limited number of Arab districts just to the north of Jerusalem – with these districts being brought inside the city boundary. At the same time, the Palestinian flag would fly over some key buildings in the eastern half of the city, including Orient House – the unofficial Palestinian seat of government. The Palestinians in the city would also vote for their own mayor. ‘In effect’, a diplomat said, ‘the Palestinians would have sovereignty over their people in Jerusalem, but not the land’.”
What’s different between then and now? Apart from the losses in lives and property, the hideous construction of The Wall, and the closure of Orient House, it seems that now — seven years later — there is no offer for the Palestinian flag to fly over buildings in East Jerusalem, and no proposal that Palestinians would vote for their own mayor … and what was that about no sovereignty over the land????