Middle East Peacemaking at Sea

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said three contradictory things in his remarks on the defeat of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan by a Likud party majority on Sunday, May 2. He acknowledged that Sharon had suffered a setback, allowed the plan could still go forward and added: We’ve not hitched our wagon to any single effort.”
One Washington wag wisecracked: Our wagon has lost all its wheels.
According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the spokesman’s remarks represented an attempt to look two ways at once. First, to distance President George W. Bush from the entire Middle East peacemaking process and in particular its link to Sharon’s defeated initiative – at least until the November presidential election; second, to breathe new life into the stalled peace process and comatose road map coming before the Middle East Quartet meeting in New York Tuesday, May 4, under the aegis of UN Secretary Kofi Annan.
Bush will not be able to dodge all his Middle East headaches this week. Jordan’s King Abdullah is due for talks in the White House two days after the Quartet meeting. He wants a letter from the president that will counterbalance the concessions granted Sharon when his disengagement plan was still believed viable. He is unlikely to get what he wants as the concessions to Sharon have been effectively put on ice since the Likud referendum debacle. Other Arab officials on their way are Egyptian Intelligence minister General Omar Suleiman to visit the National Security Council and Arafat’s information minister Nabil Shaath, at the invitation of secretary of state Colin Powell. The President will meanwhile have perused an open letter from 50 veteran US envoys accusing him of “unabashedly” supporting Israel and fast losing US “credibility, prestige and friends” in the Arab world. The American envoys praised a similarly scathing letter posted last week by senior British ex-diplomats to prime minister Tony Blair.
Most of the officials attending the Quartet meeting share these sentiments.
Present apart from Powell and Annan are the new Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the European foreign policy executive Javier Solana, the EU external relations chief Chris Patten and the Irish foreign minister Brian Cowan, the current EU president.
Their original agenda emanated from Sharon’s disengagement plan. Its implementation was to have been followed by instant progress towards Palestinian statehood, skipping Clause One of the road map that makes the cessation of Palestinian terrorist operations and dismantling of their terrorist organizations mandatory.
The new agenda initiated by Powell – though not approved by the President – resorts instead to the five-point letter the Israeli prime minister left last month at the White House in exchange for the Bush missive. It is a statement of intent, pledging omission rather than commission, for which endorsement is not required by any Israeli body: Israel will not annex disputed territory, will not build new settlements or expand existing ones and will not equate the security barrier running along its West Bank border with a final national boundary.
These undertakings will be treated as clearing one stage of the road map. In the next stage the Palestinians will have to meet three pre-conditions for statehood by bringing to a complete halt all hostile activity, dismantling armed organizations – except for a unified security-police force – and framing a joint Palestinian-US-EU program for the reconstruction of Palestinian areas.
Once these steps are in place, an independent Palestinian state bounded by provisional frontiers will rise without delay on most of Gaza Strip territory and 42 percent of the West Bank. It will win the recognition of the United States and Europe. Final status negotiations will follow to settle the future of the remaining 58 percent and Jerusalem.
The Israeli prime minister, boxed in by his own party, is holding urgent consultations – first of all with Likud and coalition partner ministers – in search of a formula that will retain some form of diplomatic initiative without breaking up his government. Weeks of intense haggling and quibbling lie ahead before any decisions are reached about the fate of the plan and the government.
As the race for the succession quickens, Likud ministers are more likely to stand up to the weakened prime minister than to the anti-disengagement party majority whose support the contenders will woo avidly.
Change party ministers, on the other hand, threaten to walk out if diplomatic momentum winds down. The opposition, whose leader Shimon Peres has been asked to meet Sharon Tuesday night, is waiting in the wings to pounce with no confidence and parliamentary dissolution motions to bring the Sharon government down. Many regard a national election as a de facto national referendum on disengagement which does not require special new legislation. The settlement movement, buoyed up by its success in swinging the Likud referendum against the evacuation of the Gaza Strip, is girding up to block any fresh initiatives.
Bush and Sharon are invited to address the annual conference of the powerful Israeli lobbyist AIPAC in Washington on May 17. In the aftermath of Sharon’s setback, their words will be eagerly awaited for new policy perspectives.

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