POLITICAL turmoil and uncertainty in both Israel and the United States have now brought an end to the grim farce of Middle East peace-making.
Under the faltering sponsorship of US President George W Bush, no discernable progress has been achieved since the Annapolis summit of November 2007, and no progress can be expected for the next several months until new leaders emerge in both Israel and the US – and perhaps not even then, such are the built-in obstacles to peace between Israel and its neighbors.
Bush, and his hapless Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, must bear the prime responsibility for the failure. They have been unwilling – or unable – to put the slightest pressure on Israel, even to insist that it honor its verbal commitments to freeze settlements and evacuate illegal outposts. But they are not the only culprits.
The fratricidal feud between Fatah and Hamas has set back the Palestinians’ hopes for an independent state of their own. They continue to fight each other, as if unaware that their cause is disappearing before their eyes. Factionalism has been the ruin of the Palestinians ever since they first confronted militant Zionism under the British Mandate between the two world wars.
The political impotence of the wider Arab world has also played its part in the failure of the peace process. Although Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have generously paid the July salaries of tens of thousands of Palestinian civil servants, the Arab oil states have not used their colossal financial power to bring pressure to bear on the United States on the Palestinians’ behalf. Arab oil wealth has still not been converted into political power.
Fatally tarnished by corruption scandals, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has decided not to compete for the leadership of his party, Kadima, and to resign as prime minister once a new party leader is elected at primaries on Sept 17.
The frontrunners to replace him are Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni (a former Mossad agent) and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz (a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff). Whoever wins will have 42 days in which to put together a coalition.
Livni seems to favor a continuation of the present Kadima-Labour-Shas coalition. However, if the harder-line Mofaz wins the leadership contest, Israel could lurch to the right, with a possible coalition of Kadima, Labour and Likud, or even a Kadima- Likud-Israeli Beiteinu coalition.
If a coalition on any of these lines fails to materialize, elections would have to be held in early-2009. Binjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, could well win them, taking Israel even further to the right – and away from any possibility of a peace settlement.
The prospects of real progress on the peace front are therefore slim indeed.
On his return to Israel last November from the Annapolis summit, Olmert declared that if the ‘two state solution collapses, the State of Israel is finished.’ This dramatic statement, which caught the headlines, seemed to suggest that he had grasped that continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and settlement expansion must inevitably threaten Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state.
But Olmert’s words clearly meant nothing. It is not even clear if he believed them because, in his tenure of office, he has done everything possible to kill the two-state solution. He has pressed ahead rapidly with settlement expansion, especially in Arab East Jerusalem. Indeed, in his talks with the Palestinians, he has adamantly refused even to discuss the future of Jerusalem.
He has repeatedly brushed aside the feeble pleas of George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice to freeze settlement construction. Indeed, he has not hesitated to announce the creation of new housing units immediately after each of Rice’s visits to Israel – as if to prove which of them had the greater political clout in Washington.
According to Peace Now, 2008 has witnessed the fastest growth of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 10 years.
Not a single illegal outpost has been removed by Olmert, nor has any attempt been made to dismantle any of the new settlements created in the last decade. Far from allowing greater Palestinian freedom of movement on the West Bank, checkpoints stifling the Palestinian economy have increased from 521 to 607. Building of the separation wall in the Occupied Territories is proceeding apace, as is a system of segregated roads, available only to Israelis or to Israeli settlers.
Economic warfare against the Palestinians – and the starving of Gaza – continue as relentlessly as ever in spite of the truce, as do the military raids on the West Bank causing inevitable Palestinian civilian casualties, such as the recent killing of children and teenagers protesting against the ‘apartheid wall’ at the West Bank village of Ni’Lin.
As if blocking out any of this evidence from her mind, Condoleezza Rice continues cheerfully to chair meetings between Tsipi Livni and Ahmad Qorei, the chief Palestinian negotiator, as she did in Washington on July 30 – the second time in a month – and as she no doubt hopes to do again when she returns to the region for the fifteenth or sixteenth time on August 20. No US Secretary of State has devoted so much time and effort to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio to so little effect.
The prospect of a final status agreement by the end of this year – which Bush has repeatedly proclaimed as his goal – has long since been discarded as wholly unrealistic. Rice’s ambition seems to be limited to producing some sort of vague and non-committing document listing areas of agreement. This could be presented to the UN General Assembly in mid-September and hailed as a diplomatic success for the Bush presidency.
Poor Condi Rice! She has not been given the authority to be firm with Olmert, and he, in turn, has not dared confront Israel’s powerful settler lobby, even if he were so inclined.
Would a Barack Obama or a John McCain presidency do any better? Both presidential contenders are certainly cleverer and better informed than George W Bush. Both probably recognize that a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians – and indeed between Israel and Syria – is a vital US security interest.
But American policy in the Middle East has, for a generation and more, been so profoundly distorted by the Israeli alliance, and by the influence of Israel’s friends in Washington, that it is hard to entertain even a hint of optimism for the future.