IsraelPalestineUSA

Why set menus for Middle East peace do not work

US President George W Bush's support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's latest unilateral moves is a severe blow to the prospects for in the .

Why all the fuss?” was the question recently asked on the pages of The Globe and Mail, a liberal Canadian daily.

Had the question been posed by a Washington or a Likud hawk, one could have ignored it. But the article's authors were, in fact, Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and former Clinton Adviser Robert Malley – both now at the respected think tank, the International Crisis Group, which launched the much-talked about unofficial Geneva Peace Accords. Although I whole-heartedly agree with their assertion that Bush cannot choose Middle East peace a la carte, I find it hard to come to grips with their rosy assessment that there was nothing amiss in Bush's support for Sharon's latest tour de force.

Given his administration's record, the content of Bush's message might not come as any surprise, but his unapologetically one-sided support and rhetoric give plenty of cause for concern. Even if Bush was simply, as the authors argue, providing Sharon with the domestic political cover to pull out of , he is also effectively killing off his own Road Map and the prospects of a fair peace deal in the spray of diplomatic shrapnel this has caused.

It is true, as the article points out, that the US-backed peace talks in Camp David and Taba in 2000-2001 did envision the prospect of holding on to some West Bank settlement blocks. But this was still in the context of UN resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.

But on 14 April 2004, a US president, for the first time, wholeheartedly embraced the fact that “in light of new realities on the ground”, it would be unrealistic to expect that all “already existing major Israeli population centres” would be dismantled, without mentioning the land Palestinians would get in return. The authors also conveniently overlook the massive Jerusalem settlements that will separate the city from the West Bank on three sides – effectively cutting off the disputed city from the Palestinians while keeping silent on its ultimate status. The authors also fail to mention the fact that Sharon wants to take the unprecedented step of keeping the intrusive settlements in Hebron.

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The same one-sidedness is apparent in Bush's position towards the 4 million Palestinian refugees when he ruled out their right of return to Israel. While many Palestinians are willing to be pragmatic on this point, they would only be willing to contemplate such a move in the context of a fair compensation package.

This raises another important point: Is Sharon's ultimate goal to weaken the Palestinian leadership so much that there is no party left on the other side to negotiate with? Emboldened by Bush's backing, he has placed his lifelong archenemy in his sights once again, saying he is reneging on a promise given to Bush that he would not harm the Palestinian president. This comes hot on the heels of the Israeli double assassination of ' spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin and, a few weeks later, his replacement Abdel-Aziz Rantissi. Sharon has also tried to silence secular Palestinian leaders – such as the high-profile trial of Marwan Barghouti and now the pestering by police of peace activist and head of al-Quds University Sari Nusseibeh.

An ultimatum or a plan?

This leads us to another reason for making a fuss: Bush effectively gave away – as the authors themselves assert – what was not his to give in the first place.

The Palestinian compromises made during Clinton's watch were made in the context of direct talks with their Israeli counterparts. As the authors explain: “It is one thing for Palestinians to make concessions in the context of bilateral negotiations… It is quite another for the to cherry-pick from among the various compromises those that the Palestinians will have to make.”

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Despite their recognition of the importance of bilateral talks, they urge Bush to “put forward a full blueprint for a final settlement”. With his and Sharon's record of roughshod unilateral militarism, this seems like a reckless suggestion to make. It may even be unrealistic, given the lack of real interest the Bush administration has in the Arab-Israeli .

Robert Malley admits as much in a previous article for French newspaper Le Monde. He says that the ‘internationalisation' of the conflict is preferable to its ‘unilateralisation'. “But… it will have to wait until times, or at least the administration, change.”

Secondly, Malley and Evans, by proposing that the US “put forward a full blueprint or a final settlement and seek broad international backing for it”, seem to forego their previous commitment to home-grown people's initiatives. However, I remain convinced the authors still believe that “A process must be devised to give practical and political expression to the heartfelt desire of clear majorities on both sides to end this conflict once and for all.”

I also beg to differ with the authors that the United States enjoyed the status of impartial and credible broker until its 14 April statements. In the eyes of the international community, the United States lost its credibility in the run up to the ongoing conflict. For many ordinary Arabs, they have had difficulties seeing Washington as an impartial broker for decades. However, many – if not all parties in the Middle East – recognised the United States as the only realistic broker due to its sheer power and influence. Now, even that real politick is being questioned.

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As the informal ICG-backed Geneva talks showed, a peaceful settlement can be achieved if the two sides are brought together in the right climate. Within this framework, I believe that home-grown initiatives, under the guidance of the international community – which would naturally include the United States – should be stimulated. Once the framework is in place, Palestinian and Israeli citizens should be deemed mature enough politically to have a say in the shape of a future peace. The missing link for a breakthrough is mutual trust, political courage, an innovative approach to negotiations and respect for public opinion. However, as the situation on the ground continues to change, the time left to reach a viable two-state solution is quickly running out.

Author

  • Katleen Maes

    Katleen Maes is the victim assistance coordinator for the Nobel peace prize-winning Handicap International in Brussels. She works on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and is part of the Cluster Munition Coalition. She was the final editor and lead researcher on Fatal Footprint, which measures the human impact of cluster munitions. She is also a conflict resolution and sustainable peace expert specialising in the Middle East. In addition, she writes for various publications.

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Katleen Maes

Katleen Maes is the victim assistance coordinator for the Nobel peace prize-winning Handicap International in Brussels. She works on the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and is part of the Cluster Munition Coalition. She was the final editor and lead researcher on Fatal Footprint, which measures the human impact of cluster munitions. She is also a conflict resolution and sustainable peace expert specialising in the Middle East. In addition, she writes for various publications.

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