Joel Beinin is director of Middle East Studies and Professor of History at the American University in Cairo and contributing editor of Middle East Report.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice concluded her second trip to the Middle East in a month with little to show for her efforts. The meeting she hosted between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was undermined the day before it began. Olmert announced that Israel and the United States had agreed that they would boycott the Palestinian government of national unity which will be formed on the basis of the accords reached in Mecca unless it recognizes “the right of the State of Israel to exist,” stops “terrorism” and agrees to fulfill the agreements signed by the PLO.
Such demands appear to be sensible requirements for a diplomatic process. But in fact they are one-sided and hypocritical. The Palestinians must recognize the right of Israel to exist. But Israel is not required to define its borders or to recognize the right of a Palestinian state to exist. The Palestinians must stop “terrorism,” but Israel is not required to stop military operations in the Palestinian territories or the building of settlements. The Palestinians should fulfill the agreements they have signed, but Israel is not required to do so, even though it has violated many provisions of the Oslo accords and the roadmap, such as opening “safe passages” between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, carrying out of the third “redeployment” (withdrawal from Palestinian territories), treating the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territory, freezing settlement construction, etc.
This meeting was planned after Rice’s previous visit to the Middle East when she met with several Arab ministers and presidents. They received her politely, but were skeptical of the Bush administration’s plan to escalate the war in Iraq. They all insisted that the one useful thing that the United States could do in the Middle East would be to promote Palestinian-Israeli peace. In response, Rice pledged to build on the “momentum” of the first formal meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on December 24 by hosting this informal meeting, which neither party agreed to call a negotiation and which did not even produce a joint statement or a press release. In fact, there is little momentum towards any peace agreement. U.S. policy is already trailing behind the development of events.
Following the December meeting, Olmert announced several policy changes meant to ease conditions for Palestinians, whose economic distress has become a humanitarian crisis with the potential to threaten the stability of the entire Middle East. Olmert's promises remain mostly unfulfilled, and Israel continues to make unilateral decisions that undermine the possibility of peace or stability.
The cabinet agreed to remove 27 of the more than 500 checkpoints that obstruct Palestinians' daily movement to and from work, schools and medical care and ease inspection procedures at 16 more. An investigative report by the daily Ha'aretz revealed that improvements were minimal. While one checkpoint was removed, new mobile checkpoints have been added.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz called for a release of some of the 8,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel holds before Eid al-Adha in late December. Though pre-holiday releases have been customary, the army pressured the cabinet to block the release.
Days after the December Olmert-Abbas meeting, Israel signaled its disinterest in negotiations by approving construction of the first official new West Bank settlement in ten years, violating a commitment to the Bush administration to freeze settlement construction. That decision has subsequently been “frozen.” While Olmert was briefing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about his initiatives, the Israeli army invaded Ramallah and shot up the main downtown square, killing four and wounding 30 civilians. As Rice met with her Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Israel announced the construction of 44 new housing units in Ma‘ale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank.
Israel did follow through on Olmert's pledge to transfer $100 million out of about $600 million in customs and sales taxes it has owed the Palestinian Authority since March 2006. The funds were paid directly to Abbas, bypassing the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Earlier, Israel permitted Egypt to deliver arms to forces loyal to Abbas in an effort to strengthen his Fatah movement against Hamas.
Israel is encouraging military confrontation between Fatah and Hamas, rather than pursuing a possible diplomatic opening with Hamas. On January 10, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal told Reuters that Israel is a “matter of fact.” Hamas previously rejected any agreement with Israel on the grounds that Palestinians should seek to liberate all of historic Palestine. Dismissing this potential shift in Hamas’ position with a shrug, Prime Minister Olmert flippantly asked journalists, “Should I be expected to read what he said?”
Israel has also been intransigent toward its Arab neighbors. On January 16 Ha'aretz reported that secret informal talks between Syria and Israel from September 2004 to July 2006 formulated understandings for a comprehensive peace agreement between the two countries. In exchange for Israeli withdrawal from Syrian territory occupied in 1967, Syria would sign a peace agreement recognizing Israel, ensure that Lebanon’s Hizballah would limit itself to being a political party, require Meshal to leave Damascus and distance itself from Iran. The contacts ended after Israel rejected a Syrian request for an official meeting with the participation of a senior American official. Nonetheless, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad subsequently affirmed publicly his willingness to negotiate a peace with Israel. Olmert rebuffed these overtures.
Israel’s recent actions demonstrate an unwillingness to explore possibilities for peace, proving both of Secretary Rice's trips to be only a theatrical exercise. Though she achieved the freeze of a new settlement and the partial delivery of the funds owed to the Palestinian Authority, it was done in a way that encourages conflict and instability and contributes nothing to Israeli-Palestinian peace. The situation in the Palestinian territories is far too dire for pretenses, half-measures or symbolic gestures to make a difference. There may still be a window of opportunity for a comprehensive agreement to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. It should not be allowed to close.