President Bush's announcement of a new Middle East summit is being dutifully reported as a move to "revive" the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, designed to culminate in a two-state solution. But the meeting, if it ever comes about, will be nothing of the sort. U.S. officials have already made clear that the gathering's purpose will be "to review progress toward building Palestinian institutions, look for ways to support further reforms and support the effort going on right now between the parties together."
Mushy? Of course it's mushy. The Bush speech simply restated the key term of the administration's long dead "roadmap" -- before there can be peace talks, the Palestinians will be required to destroy Hamas. In other words, there will be no peace talks, just a lot of wishful thinking. As White House Press Secretary Tony Snow put it, "I think a lot of people are inclined to try to treat this as a big peace conference. It's not."
The Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about the emperor's new clothes might accurately describe current U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- except for one important detail. In the fairytale, the emperor's courtiers are careful never to let on that they can see their monarch's nakedness; in the case of U.S. Middle East policy, there is what playwright Bertolt Brecht might have called an epic gap between some of the actors and their lines. Plainly, very few of them believe the things that the script requires them to say.
In this absurdist take on the old fairytale, whenever anyone points out that the emperor has no clothes, they are simply told "duh!" before the players get back acting as if it's fashion week in the palace.
The parlor game in all of this might be deciding which of Bush's courtiers is the most craven and cynical. The competition is fierce, but here's a handicapping of the race:
1. The Israelis
The Israeli leadership recognized Hamas' takeover of Gaza's security as an opportunity -- but not, as they still tell gullible journalists, to pursue a peace agreement with Palestinian "moderates." Quite the contrary, it's been viewed as a free pass to fend off any conceivable U.S. pressure to conclude, or even work toward, a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. All they now have to do is make wan gestures of support for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, while using the fact that he speaks for half or less of all Palestinians to prove their case that, as ever, "there is no Palestinian partner for peace."
According to the respected Israeli political correspondent Aluf Benn, there is now a cast-iron consensus across the Israeli political spectrum that withdrawal from the West Bank is inconceivable for the foreseeable future. "In this atmosphere," Benn writes, "it is clear that any talk about a 'two-state solution' and [Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's] declarations at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit about 'new opportunities' and 'accelerating the process toward a Palestinian state' are bogus. This diplomatic lip service, disassociated from reality and real expectations, is meant to assuage the Americans and the Europeans and deflect pressure on Israel."
Such duplicity is fine with the Bush administration and various European powers, Benn writes, precisely because they are doing the same thing: "The international community is participating in the show, and gradually is losing interest in the conflict." When it comes to pursuing any kind of deal to end Israel's occupation of the territories it captured in 1967, the Bush administration's policy can be summed up in three words: Look reasonably busy.
Israel's longstanding, but constantly shifting, argument has been simple enough: It has no Palestinian partner. First that was thanks to PLO leader Yasser Arafat's duplicity; then it was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' weakness; next, it was Hamas' victory in the January 2006 elections (that the Bush administration had sponsored), followed by the decision of Abbas to join it in a "unity" government; now, with Hamas left to starve and die in blockaded Gaza, and Abbas setting up his own unelected government on the West Bank, we're back to Abbas' weakness as an explanation.
The Bush administration has faithfully echoed Israel's zigzagging evasion of talks with the Palestinians, a course that began when Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001. Even as, in op-ed after op-ed in U.S. papers , Hamas signals its desire to engage, and even as Israel continues to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Hamas, Israeli leaders insist that negotiations with the organization are impossible. Hamas, after all, has waged a terror war against Israel and adamantly refuses to recognize the Jewish state.
Few now remember that Israel used the same argument to avoid talking to Arafat's Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Fatah, too, had engaged in terrorism against Israelis (and still does occasionally) and refused to revise its charter to recognize Israel until 1998, five years after Arafat and Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin had their historic handshake on the White House lawn. Non-recognition of Israel is the default starting point for Palestinian nationalism, as Hamas deputy head Abu Marzook recently made clear in the Los Angeles Times, not because of some religious absolutism but because, for Palestinians, Israel's creation in 1948 meant their violent dispossession. Hamas believes it is being ordered to legitimize this dispossession before negotiations can even begin, and it refuses to do so.
The fact that Fatah did eventually recognize Israel -- and got so little in return -- has cost the organization dearly on the Palestinian street. Nine months into the Western financial blockade that followed Hamas' election victory, a survey conducted by the Western-funded Palestinian Center for Social and Political Research found 54% of Palestinians dissatisfied with Hamas' performance in power and only 40% ready to vote for it again. Nonetheless, when asked whether Hamas should recognize Israel in order to get the siege lifted, 67% said no.
The Israelis will continue to play along with the American fantasy that a peace can be concluded with a self-appointed Palestinian autocracy, while war is waged on the elected Palestinian government. However, they know perfectly well that Abbas is in no position to deliver -- and that's fortunate to their way of thinking. After all, from the time that Sharon became prime minister, a peace agreement with the Palestinian leadership has not been what Israel had in mind. His election campaign promises involved putting an end to the Oslo peace process. He left no doubt that he believed the sort of comprehensive peace envisaged at Oslo was impossible. In an interview shortly after his election, he called instead for "a long-term, gradual solution that will enable us to examine the development of the relations between us and the Palestinians over time." Curiously enough, this is exactly the position Hamas leaders have taken on the issue. They opt for long-term "truces," aimed at calming relations between the two peoples, rather than final agreements. That outlook earns Hamas the label "rejectionist"; Bush called Sharon "a man of peace."
Buoyed by the post 9/11 environment in Washington, Sharon led the Americans on a giddy dance. First, he got them to agree that peace talks were impossible because Arafat was autocratic and deceitful. So the U.S. demanded that, prior to any progress in the "peace process," President Arafat would have to cede control over Palestinian finances and security forces to the democratically elected legislature as well as the cabinet and prime minister it picked.
Then Arafat died and the U.S.-favored Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas became President. Sharon promptly declared Abbas too weak for peace, a prophecy he helped fulfill by showing the Palestinian electorate that Abbas would achieve nothing through patient, plaintive conversations with Washington.
Still, those dopey Americans didn't seem to get the joke; so, perversely, they pushed for Palestinian elections, which Hamas duly won. Blindsided, the Bush administration promptly rushed out the patently naive explanation that Hamas had won because of Fatah's corruption (even as it continued to coddle some of the most corrupt elements in Fatah). As former European Union (EU) special Middle East adviser Alastair Crooke makes clear, the election result was indeed primarily a repudiation of Fatah and its policies. International experience has shown that voters will tolerate a measure of corruption on the part of political leaders as long as they deliver on some of their promises. (Brazil's current government is a perfect example of this.) But Palestinian voters recognized that Fatah had led them up a blind alley -- almost 20 years of negotiations had not ended Israel's de facto control of Gaza and had seen the steady expansion, in the form of settlements, of its occupation of the West Bank.
Palestinian democracy had returned the "wrong" party to power. The U.S. response was best summed up in Brecht's quip about an official East German statement claiming "the people" had forfeited the confidence of the government: "Wouldn't it be easier to dissolve the people and elect another in their place?"
The Bush administration quickly adopted a policy of collective punishment. The Palestinians were to be choked until they relented and reversed their electoral decision. An undoubtedly amused Israeli leadership now watched as Washington reversed everything it had said about Palestinian governance, demanding that all authority over security, finances, and anything else that came to mind must be placed, as in Arafat's time, in the hands of the president. More important, it also began fomenting coup plans in which U.S.-backed Palestinian security forces answering to Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan would seize control of Gaza. We now know how well that worked out.
As the Bush administration's vaudeville act spins on, Israel will play along, while damning the hapless Abbas with faint gestures of encouragement. Israel has agreed to begin trickling funds -- belonging to the Palestinian Administration, but withheld since Hamas' election victory -- into Abbas' coffers (but not all at once, mind you, lest he get the idea that he has any freedom of action). It has also agreed to release some 250 of the more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds (and only lower-ranking members of Abbas' faction at that). These two "gestures" are an indication of just how little Israel seems ready to do to "bolster" Abbas.
By contrast, Hamas is using its capture over a year ago of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to negotiate the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners -- and they have taken care to make sure that their lists include prisoners from all factions. You can guess which approach will prove more popular among Palestinians.
Whether it's an enfeebled Abbas or an unyielding Hamas, Israel will simply continue to argue that there is no real Palestinian partner in sight. The show of creating one will go on, but it is designed to fail.
2. Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas has looked like a very unhappy camper for a very long time. As well he should. As former Clinton negotiator Rob Malley and former Palestinian adviser Hussein Agha noted four years ago, Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) had an ambiguous role in the script written by Ariel Sharon and green-lighted by the Bush administration:
"Let Abu Mazen succeed in order to marginalize Arafat, end the armed intifada, and achieve for Israel a measure of security. But let him succeed only so far and no further. Let him bring about a more peaceful situation without benefiting from its potential political returns. For Abu Mazen's success could bring him strength, and his strength would revitalize the threat of a unified Palestinian movement that his rise was meant to thwart."
Having gambled his political life on the willingness of the United States to press Israel to conclude a two-state deal, Abbas has long been glumly aware of just how bare the negotiation cupboard really is. For years now, he has had to stand by silently being damned, in the eyes of his own people, by the minimalist praise and parsimonious gestures occasionally tossed his way.
Whatever the rhetoric, it's not going to get much better. After all, the Bush administration abandoned the role of seriously mediating between Israel and the Palestinians almost as soon as it took office. Since then, its efforts can best be summed up by the all-nighters Secretary of State Condi Rice pulled in Jerusalem, as if engaged in real diplomacy. She would then crow about how she had gotten a border crossing into Gaza opened (that would invariably close within days of her departure). As if that wasn't sufficient humiliation for Abbas, he had to endure periodic scoldings from Rice over his failure to provoke a Palestinian civil war with Hamas.
Abbas' problem is that neither Bush -- even if he wanted to, which he doesn't -- nor any successor president, is likely to risk the domestic political aggravation attached to pressing Israel into a peace agreement. Bush's Middle East policy director Elliot Abrams recently reassured pro-Israel groups in the U.S. that all of Secretary of State Rice's shuttling around the region was simply "process," designed to placate the Arabs and win their support for putting more pressure on Iran. The President, Abrams said, had no intention of actually pressing Israel back to the negotiating table.
The Palestinian electorate knew the game was up long before the Fatah leadership faced up to that fact. As Alastair Crooke noted:
"Hardly any Palestinians now believe that Palestinian 'good behaviour' -- as promised to Israel by Fatah -- will induce the U.S. to ignore its domestic Israel lobby and exert pressure on Israel to withdraw from the lands occupied in 1967... Palestinians have seen their putative state in the West Bank salami-sliced away by settlements, army posts, military zones, fences and Israeli-only roads that cut the territory into enclaves in which 2.5 million Palestinians are confined, their movements heavily curtailed... The U.S. and the [European Union] argued that Palestinian violence was the problem; but the Palestinians noted that in periods of quiet more rather than less of their land fell to the Israeli salami-slicer -- yet still the international community remained silent."
So Abbas is a very lonely man. And the corruption all around him is but a symptom of the way his movement has lost its political identity and become instead just a vehicle for personal power and enrichment. The fear of losing the power of patronage, poorly wrapped in rhetoric about national goals, was what prompted Fatah's leaders to press Abbas, from the moment the election results were in, to overturn them. The regime Abbas is now creating will prove little more than a carbon copy of the decrepit, autocratic Arab regimes in the region most willing to follow U.S. dictates. As Beirut Daily Star editor-at-large Rami Khouri observed earlier this year, such regimes tend to speak for their immediate entourages, their security chiefs, and little more. The Americans and Israelis know that Abbas (like those regimes) has few cards to play and is likely to have no choice but to take whatever he's given.
Abbas' domestic problems are not limited to the influence of Hamas. Analyst Khaled Amyreh points out that his faction within Fatah is very small and its willingness to accept American tutelage is rejected by those who had been closer to Arafat. Perhaps recognizing the danger of his isolation (even within his own party), Abbas appears now to have sacrificed Dahlan, his national security chief (as well as Bush and Condi's anointed favorite). It's hard not to suspect that Abbas may yet consider the possibility of some kind of rapprochement with Hamas.
3. The Arab regimes
The Arab autocrats whose presence is now required whenever Bush puts on one of his no-clothes shows recognize themselves in Abbas' predicament. They, too, have precious little to show their people in return for allying with Washington. Their citizenry, too, has watched them stand by helplessly as Washington has sanctioned and encouraged the systematic trampling of the Palestinians, the pulverizing of Lebanon, and the chaotic destruction of Iraq (which now produces a 9/11-equivalent death toll at least every few weeks). Those citizens, too, see that only the Islamists seem willing to stand up to the U.S. and Israel. The autocrats, too, beg and plead with Washington to enforce a two-state solution based on Israel's 1967 borders and face the same smug dismissal of their concerns or the same meaningless ritual endorsements.
How many times do they have to be reminded by administration officials that President Bush was the first American leader to publicly call for a Palestinian state? Of course, he was also the first to formally endorse Israel's right to the massive settlements built in the occupied West Bank in violation of international law.
So cavalier were Bush's tailors in the early days of his Mesopotamian expedition that they actually envisaged getting rid of longtime U.S. trusties in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. They imagined a "democratic tsunami" that would sweep the region, replacing previous allies with a cadre of Ahmed Chalabis, Fouad Ajamis, Kenan Makiyas, Amir Taheris, and other neocon-approved Middle Easterners.
The Hamas victory last year made clear that the beneficiary of any Arab democracy would initially be the Islamists, so Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and the Kings Abdullah of Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well as their entourages will have to do for now. Their function in the Bush schema, however, is simply to serve as a "native" cheering section as he tilts at Iran, while bolstering Abbas in his role as Palestinian gendarme.
4. The Europeans
Unlike the Arab allies smiling painfully as they quietly agitate for President Bush to put on some clothes, the Europeans, bizarrely enough, have stripped down to the buff and joined Bush on the catwalk. Europe, too, is enforcing a financial siege against the elected Palestinian government in the vain hope that this will force a symbolic surrender from Hamas. (The Arab regimes, at least, have the excuse that the U.S. is using its dominant position in the international banking system to prevent them from sending money to Gaza; the Europeans are not doing so as a matter of policy.)
And it's not just critics who think they should know better; they admit that they do know better: U.S. national security analyst Mark Perry reveals that, after he and Alastair Crooke briefed European leaders on the arguments for engaging with Hamas despite U.S. pressure for a boycott, one ambassador responded: "We know you are right, really we do. But we will not break with the Americans. We just cannot do it."
If a willingness to strangle the Palestinians in Gaza is the test of loyalty to the U.S., it also takes the Europeans out of any meaningful role in the region -- as Tony Blair will discover as soon as he embarks on his fool's errand of "mentoring" Palestinian institution-building under occupation and siege -- on terms that exclude the democratically elected government from his mentoring, no less. Sadly, the end of an independent European role will have tragic consequences for the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as for the rest of us. After all, as the Europeans have surely noted, under President Bush and his top officials the U.S. has made itself part of the problem, not part of any prospective solution in the Middle East.
That really is one great tragedy of the Bush administration, which essentially outsourced its policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Ariel Sharon. Sharon's ideas are now so deeply embedded in the mainstream of both parties on Capitol Hill that Congress is even more anti-Palestinian than the administration. As the presidential candidates of both parties fall over one another to take ever harder-line stances on the Palestinians, Iran, and any other subject of concern to Israel, it's an odds-on bet that the naked imperial fashion show will continue, no matter who replaces Bush on the imperial throne.
Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes the Middle East and other international conflicts. He also runs his own website, Rootless Cosmopolitan.
Copyright 2007 Tony Karon