Jerusalem, Israel — This week US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah to craft a joint declaration for Middle East peace talks scheduled for this fall in Annapolis. Israeli experts are quick to pronounce her effort doomed.
Rice has spent four days this week thrashing out the details of the joint document with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Abu Mazen. The secretary understands that this desperate and late effort by the Bush administration won’t come up with, “…answers about issues that have been on the table for decades.” But she explains the document should signal, “…that there is a basis to move forward for the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Rice’s problem is that she is working with two failed leaders who can’t deliver. Olmert’s popularity parallels that of the US Congress and Mazen’s regime is tottering and could be replaced by the terrorist group Hamas. Sad to say but it seems that our secretary has been taking advice from United Nations delegates who reside on Jerusalem’s “Hill of Evil Counsel.”
The motivation for Rice’s trip seems to be Clintonesque and so might the results. President Clinton tried to find a Mideast peace legacy in his final year which produced nothing but frustration and likely lit the fires for the 2000 Mideast Intifada, an Arabic word for shaking off, though it is generally translated into English as rebellion.
The good news is that Rice’s shuttle diplomacy provides the presidential candidates the opportunity to flex their foreign policy muscles. They should be asked to reveal their Mideast views and solutions.
Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, believes diplomacy will gain, “…Arab support for a Palestinian leadership that is committed to peace and willing to engage in a dialogue with the Israelis.” Clinton hedges her position by naively promising that even if the US fails to broker a final peace at least trying can, “…lower the level of violence and restore our credibility in the region.”
Rudy Giuliani, the leading Republican candidate, is more cynical. There is “too much emphasis” being placed on brokering negotiations between Israel and Palestine, Giuliani said. He cautions such negotiations could lead to. “…the creation of another state that will support terrorism.”
There are three “core issues” that divide the Israelis and Palestinians: the so-called Palestinian “right of return” to Israel, the adjustment of the borders and the status of Jerusalem.
Consider what Israeli experts say about each issue and the broader process.
In 1948, after the modern Israel was formed, Arab leaders told the Palestinian people inside the Jewish state to flee because the Arabs promised to forcibly remove the Jews. Many Palestinians did flee for neighboring countries fully expecting to return.
Unfortunately for them, the Arab leaders failed to force the Jews out. Today, millions of Palestinians — descendants of those who fled – remain outside Israel in refugee camps expecting to return someday. These people who seek a “right to return” are used as pawns in the hands of totalitarian Arab regimes that milk world sentiment against Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni calls the “right of return” the single major threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state because the return of millions of Palestinian refugees would result in Israel becoming a majority arab state.
The second issue concerns the borders separating the Palestinians and the Israelis. Palestinian leaders demand Israel withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines, basically the 3,900 mile borders comprising the so-called West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Marc Prowisor just completed ten years as the chief security coordinator of the Shilo region, a group of settlements in the Judea Samaria administered area – West Bank. Prowisor opposes surrendering the settlements to Palestinian control.
Shilo, Prowisor’s settlement, which is 25 miles north of Jerusalem, constantly faces the threats from drive-by shooters, kidnappers and fire bombers. The Palestinian terrorists target unarmed civilians rather than soldiers and settlement security personnel, Prowisor explained.
Returning the “West Bank” to Palestinian control, explained Prowisor, puts much of Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city as well as Ben-Gurion airport easily within rocket range of Palestinian terrorists much like what happened to Gaza which Israel surrendered to the Palestinians in August 2005. Daily, Palestinian rockets rain down on Israeli settlers nearby Gaza.
Retired Israeli Major General Jacob Amidror, the former head of his army’s intelligence, is skeptical about the talks as well. The general explained that all US presidents have said that Israel deserves secure borders but they are not enough because to properly defend Israel it needs depth of defense. He pointed out that the Mediterranean Sea is only 13 miles from the West Bank.
The third core issue is resolving ownership of Jerusalem. Palestinians want all of East Jerusalem including the Old City. That would give the Palestinians sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites. This would put them on equal footing with the Saudis who are the custodians of Mecca and Medina, Islamic holy sites.
Yoef (Tommy) Lapid, a former minister of justice and former member of the Knesset, opposes returning Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. He argues the Palestinians will use their new vantage to, “…take potshots at Jews, walking about the streets of Jewish Jerusalem.”
Some Israeli experts see broader agendas at play. General Amidror believes the Palestinians will never be satisfied with anything short of Israel’s destruction. He explained that in 1996 then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent him to meet with George Tenet, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to explain the facts about dealing with the Palestinians. He asked Tenet, “Do you know what the Palestinians want?” Admidror said the answer is one word: “More.” They will be satisfied with nothing less than the whole West Bank, all of Jerusalem and the right of return of all Palestinians.
Uzi Arad was the director of intelligence (Mossad) and served as the foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The former spy sees the sinister side of the peace process. He alleges that Secretary Rice is trying to fashion peace through phony diplomacy to find President Bush a legacy. He says the effort is doomed to failure.
The former top spy suggests that Rice might be working on the Palestinian issue to win progress for the more strategic Iranian crisis. In fact, her actions might be a diversion for a coming tougher stand against Iran, Arid explained hopefully.
Moshe Arens is a former member of the Knesset. He twice served as Israel’s minister of defense and once as his nation’s ambassador to the US. Arens has little confidence in either Omert or Mazon.
Omert is “very weak,” says Arens and Mazon “can’t rule” the Palestinians. The former defense minister said “Any deal must be with those who are capable of dealing with terrorism.”
Arens was quick to say that the Omert government is ineffective and specifically blamed Omert for the “botched” 2006 war with Lebanon.
It’s clear that all parties to this conflict are tired of war. Unfortunately, their differences are significant and many Israeli experts agree that a quick shuttle diplomacy effort at the tail-end of the Bush administration has little chance of success.
What this effort ought to do is to force the US presidential candidates to draft comprehensive Mideast strategies that address not only the steps toward a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace but encompass a pragmatic agenda regarding the entire region. Then just maybe the next president can address the issue before he or she becomes a lame duck.