Politics & Policy

Giving the Process Precedence

Diplomatic failure follows when the peace process becomes an end in itself.

A U.S.-brokered peace conference between Israelis and Palestinians in Annapolis this week, is supposed to produce an outline for a peace settlement. But does the Bush administration show any indication of having learnt the lessons from the Oslo process’s failure to produce the elusive peace settlement President Clinton tried to broker in 2000? What indeed were those lessons?

A chastened Dennis Ross, chief U.S. Middle East negotiator for twelve years until Oslo’s collapse into bloodshed in 2000, helpfully laid them out in an interview with me six years ago. Speaking of Palestinian terror and incitement to hatred and murder, he observed:

you cannot have a peace only of negotiators and leaders, and not of publics … [I] believe that we … became so preoccupied with this process that the process took on a life of it’s own. It had self-sustaining justification. Every time there was a behavior, or an incident or an event, that was inconsistent with the process … the impulse was to rationalize it, finesse it, find a way around it and not allow it to break the process.

If these were the great American mistakes during Oslo, George W. Bush gave an early indication in his presidency of understanding and acting on them. He held Arafat responsible for the terrorist war, and shunned him beginning with his first day in office. In June 2002, Bush declared that new Palestinian leadership — untainted by terror and corruption, reformed of PA institutions, and sustained in action on ending terror and incitement — were prerequisites for his unprecedented presidential support for creating a Palestinian state.

In practice, however, the American tendency has been the opposite — to discard or subordinate prerequisites, while asserting that these have been largely met.

Thus, in April 2003, Bush accepted the roadmap peace plan produced by the Quartet (European Union, United Nations, Russia, and the U.S.), which agreed, in principle, with his June 2002 conditions, but diverged in practice. The roadmap ordained immediate Israeli concessions and redeployments in response to untested Palestinian reforms.

This meant pretending that the roadmap met Bush’s conditions, which it, in fact, discarded. That in turn signified that the U.S., while having side-lined Arafat, commenced dealing with a reshuffled pack of veteran Arafat loyalists — Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, Nabil Shaath, Ahmed Qurei, with Salaam Fayyad later added to the deck — claiming this amounted to new Palestinian leadership. When Arafat died in November 2004 and Abbas was formally elected PA president the following January, the embrace with the Arafat old guard became complete.

This embrace was not result of the fulfillment of any of Bush’s conditions. Under Abbas, there has been no PA action to jail terrorists and dismantle their organizations. Indeed, Abbas explicitly ruled out doing that, contrary to Oslo and the roadmap. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has carried out the lion’s share of recent terror attacks, is actually part of Fatah.

In the PA-controlled media, mosques, schools, and youth camps, incitement to hatred and murder of Jews, and glorification of terrorism as a religious and national duty, remains the order of the day. Abbas himself has praised terrorists as “heroes,” disclosed last October in Arabic that, “It is not required of Hamas, nor of Fatah, nor of the Popular Front to recognize Israel,” and could be found earlier this year calling for a political partnership with Hamas.

However, the Bush administration feigns ignorance of all this. Rice’s encomium for the PA leader last February, lauded President Abbas:

I want everyone to know, particularly the Palestinian people, how much we admire the leadership of President Abbas as a leader of the Palestinian people … we’ve made a lot of progress over recent years in particular because of the hard work of President Abbas.

Bush himself declared last September that “President Abbas is committed to peace.” Two years ago, Rice began praising Abbas for “cracking down on those who perpetrate violent attacks” – attacks which, in fact, continue unabated on a daily basis. Such flat earth endorsements for Abbas are legion.

Shoring up weak foreign leaders for fear of worse is hardly unknown diplomatic practice, nor is the existing alternative — Hamas — any more acceptable. Nonetheless, it is an axiom of diplomacy that concessions and rewards should follow moderation, not precede it. Instead, Bush has proposed to Congress an unprecedented $410 million package for Abbas: no strings attached, no benchmarks, and no performance standards.

In short, preoccupation with process is back. Self-sustaining justification is back. Rationalizing and finessing extremism and violence are back. As a consequence, diplomatic failure looms. Any agreement that might be reached, an unlikely situation in itself, will prove a dead letter.

– Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University & Director of the Zionist Organization of Americas Center for Middle East Policy.


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