What to say about Condi Rice’s multistop tour of the Middle East, and the Bush administration’s push for Palestinian statehood? There are both short and long answers. The short answer is that most of this is meaningless: diplomatic maneuverings, peace conferences, and grand initiatives have never been the engine of history in the Middle East, especially not when it comes to Palestinian statehood. If American money and diplomatic exertion plus Israeli willingness could create a Palestinian state, it would have happened already. And today the Palestinians are more politically fractured, and more lacking in leadership, than they have ever been. The post-Arafat, post-Intifada paradigm has imposed itself, and it is disappointing but necessary to acknowledge that the facts on the ground, in contrast to the alternate-reality world of peace-process diplomacy, are dominant.
The longer answer is that today’s maneuverings are taking place, I think, in the context of three trends in the region: Iran’s attempt to take ownership of the Arab-Israeli conflict through Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah; the growing fear among the Sunni Arab states of a nuclear Iran; and trepidation among the same states of the consequences of an American withdrawal from Iraq. Against this backdrop, America is seeking to bolster its allies with arms sales, reassure them about Iraq, and prevent an Iranian-backed Islamist takeover of the West Bank. On the latter it is conspicuously lavishing money, political legitimacy, and diplomatic attention on the Palestinian Authority, and American allies in the Middle East are throwing their weight behind the PA as well: Egypt, Jordan, and the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council released a joint statement on Tuesday expressing support for “the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of President Abbas and his government.”
As far as Israel is concerned, this is all good news. Gaza is essentially a write-off, and a low-cost one at that. Territorially isolated, Israel’s bottom line is that sophisticated weapons are not smuggled into Gaza that would force a serious military intervention. Otherwise, most everyone seems content to let the residents of Gaza live with their electoral choices. And assuming the administration doesn’t pressure Israel to make security concessions that would invite terrorism, bolstering the Abbas government (if it can be called a government) under the pretenses of laying the groundwork for a Palestinian state is far better than any alternatives. When it comes to the peace process, there is a great deal going on, but very little happening.