Rice to return to Jerusalem and Ramallah next week

After yesterday’s meeting in Jerusalem between Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Abbas, Israel’s Kol Israel Radio is reporting that the session had just been a “starting point”.

Kol Israel also said that the expected Middle East Peace Conference will probably only bring the two sides back to where they were before the outbreak of the Second Intifada at the end of September 2000 — what does that mean? Does that mean that the proposals that Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak (now Defense Minister and Labor Party leader) put on the table in the failed Camp David peace talks in late July 2000? Does that mean that the IDF will have to withdraw from cities in the West Bank, and pull back to its prior positions?

Now, media reports say, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to return to the region to prepare for her Middle East Peace Conference that may be held by Thanksgiving or by Christmas in Annapolis. Policy pundits have been urging her greater involvement prior to that meeting, though she has been clear that she will not get involved in negotiating.

And, Haaretz is reporting today that “Five former U.S. State Department and Pentagon officials are proposing Israeli and Palestinian capitals in Jerusalem and preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel as part of a Middle East accord. In a six-page policy statement submitted to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, they also suggested a series of peace conferences following the one she hopes to convene next month, probably in Annapolis, Maryland, near Washington”.

According to the Haaretz story, these former officials are Robert Pelletreau, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and ex-assistant secretary of state for the region; Edward S. Walker, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt; Thomas Pickering, an ex-undersecretary of state and ambassador to Israel and Jordan; Samuel Lewis, former ambassador to Israel; and Frederic C. Hof, Mideast official in the Pentagon.

Haaretz says that the report was written and coordinated primarily by Steven L. Spiegel, political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Diplomacy sometimes is all about splitting hairs. But diplomats very often have no profound understanding of whose toes they are stepping on in this process — and what happens afterwards is not so predictable.

In any case, these guys apparently think they have come up with a winning formula by proposing something Israel will like (ruling out any Palestinian refugee return to Israel proper), alongside something the Palestinians might like (dividing Jerusalem — but the Palestinians want the entire Old City, except maybe the Jewish Quarter, according to the Green Line that existed between Israeli forces and Jordanian forces prior to the June 1967 War).

This group of officials also thinks that Hamas is a big problem for the conference, Haaretz says, explaining that: “Hamas, which controls Gaza and about one-third of Palestinian-held land, has not met U.S. terms for attending. Those conditions are recognizing Israel’s right to exist and abandoning the path of violence. But the ex-officials suggested Hamas might be drawn to attend a second conference, which implicitly would accept the first one and Israel’s existence…
The Haaretz report about the proposals from a group of former U.S. officials for a way toward Middle East peace is published here.

Haaretz also reports that State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that “Rice has been meeting with former U.S. negotiators and ex-American diplomats … [but] has not replied to the policy paper”.

Finally, Haaretz sayis, “In a separate message to Rice, 79 senators lined up by the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said friendly Arab countries should participate in the conference as full partners of the United States”.

In another Haaretz article, its U.S. Correspondent, Shmuel Rosen, writes somewhat more revealingly that: “Four former ambassadors to the Middle East, three of whom also served as under secretary of state, have signed a paper circulated this week under the sponsorship of the Israel Policy Forum, a dovish Washington institute. They were joined by a CIA man, an adviser and a professor – an impressive group. Tell me who your writers are and I’ll tell you what’s in the paper …”
The other Haaretz story, reporting that this paper of former U.S. officials was sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, is here.

Rosen then goes on to heap scorn on the effort: “The paper was sent to Rice, whose efforts are being praised by the institute’s leaders as ‘an important opening to advance dialogue’. But this is praise based on deceit: Some of the writers have a particularly low opinion of her functioning in the region. Their opinion is not exceptional either in Washington or Israel. Either she ‘doesn’t understand’ or ‘she wasn’t sufficiently involved’. Some people are more generous, giving her the benefit of the doubt: She’s not to blame, President George W. Bush is. Not surprisingly, many of these accusers were members of previous administrations — people who chalked up dizzying successes, from the highly publicized and useless Madrid Conference, to the pretentious and failed Camp David summit …”

Rosen adds: “Here is an interesting innovation in the trilateral Palestinian-Israeli-American relationship. If in the early 1990s Israel and its refusal (Yitzhak Shamir) were blamed for diplomatic failures, and in the end the Arab leader (Yasser Arafat) was blamed, now the blame is being placed at the Americans’ doorstep. The implication: the weaker the Israeli leaders (Ehud Olmert as opposed to Shamir) and the Palestinian leaders (Mahmoud Abbas as opposed to Arafat), the more difficult it becomes to blame them for an action or failure. The children are having a hard time making up, and the responsibility falls on the kindergarten teacher. In any case, the teacher’s time is getting short, a few weeks to the summit, a year and a quarter to retirement. ‘Will you be able to get it done in the time that remains?’ she is asked in a discussion with CBS…”

On the Rice-as-kindergarten-teacher reference, see our earlier post, “Shaatir, Shaatir” – a popular Arabic song meaning “Good boy, Good boy”… here.

Rosen then concludes, quite correctly in our opinion: “An official involved in the discussion recently offered an interpretation of the exchange of roles between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel once accepted the need to give now (evacuation, prisoners, checkpoints) to receive compensation in the future: an end to the conflict. Now the situation is reversed. The Palestinians are being asked to compromise now (Jerusalem, the right of return) to receive compensation in the future: a Palestinian state. All this, of course, on the assumption that the principles being signed now will be only a ‘diplomatic horizon’ for the future, as Rice promised, rather than a plan for immediate implementation. Between Rice’s shortening time frame and her preliminary promises, senior political leaders are detecting with a certain disappointment that impatience is growing. The clock is likely to win.”

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