If 2003 was "the year of missed opportunities" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 2004 is likely to turn out to be "the year of absence." The Bush administration, disappointed by its failure to implement the "road map" toward Palestinian statehood, and absorbed by the presidential reelection campaign, is not eager to sink further into the Middle East quagmire. At the same time, the leaderships of Israel and its rival, the Palestinian Authority, are tangled in growing political troubles at home, which weaken their abilities to act. Given all these factors, any serious move toward resolving the conflict in the Holy Land will most probably not take place until 2005, if then.
This vision of paralysis may be surprising, given the current political and strategic circumstances in the Middle East. Israeli and Palestinian societies are fatigued and crippled in the 40th month of their violent conflict, and people on both sides desperately want change. Moreover, the United States enjoys unprecedented power and influence in the region. Its forces are deployed in Iraq, the historic cradle of Middle Eastern civilization, the ancient heart of regional empires. And despite America's obvious problems in establishing order and security in Iraq, the other states in the region recognize the new reality very well. After all, they have witnessed America's overpowering military might. President George W. Bush's dual December coup -- the capture of Saddam Hussein and Libya's surprising disarmament announcement -- reverberated throughout the region. Even earlier, Iran had agreed to slow down its nuclear program, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, under pressure from new American sanctions, proposed restarting peace negotiations with Israel. Similar conciliatory notes came from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who suddenly courted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, long a target of Egyptian criticism and animosity.
American strength stems not only from its military muscle and proven willingness -- not to say eagerness -- to use force in Iraq, but also from its political and ideological goal of promoting regional change. The linkage between Middle Eastern stability and American security has become the most repeated cliché after Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, extremist and moderate Arab regimes alike have been struggling to cope with Washington's pressure to modernize and democratize their governments and societies. To be sure, there is an old chicken-and-egg debate over what should come first, Arab-Israeli reconciliation or installing friendlier rulers in Arab capitals. But there is no doubt that reducing tensions between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors would do great service to the interests of all involved, including the United States.
On the face of it, three different lines of action are currently available for the United States to advance its regional goals. The first is to realize the Bush vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, "living side by side in peace and security," using the road map to get there. The second is reviving the defunct Syrian-Lebanese diplomatic track and calming the highly volatile Israeli northern front. The third, which is more promising than ever before, is promoting regional arms control under the American security umbrella.
Unfortunately, however, there is little prospect of progress on any of these fronts. The Palestinian track is deadlocked: Claiming that the Palestinians have no credible leader, Israel has threatened to forgo negotiations and impose a unilaterally declared border. Almighty America, the world's sole superpower and political arbiter, finds itself powerless to impose its will on the Palestinians. Bush shares Israel's distrust of the Palestinian leadership, but his repeated demands that the Palestinians replace Yasser Arafat, their veteran leader, have led to nothing. Last week the besieged Arafat celebrated the 39th anniversary of his Fatah movement: Through his unique combination of central control and anarchy, he still holds power in the Palestinian political arena. The "Arafat catch" paralyzes diplomatic efforts: Even as Americans and Israelis boycott him, they recognize the futility of talking to any other Palestinian.
Israeli and American efforts to find a Palestinian leader more to their liking have failed. The first premier, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), won Bush's admiration, but became too independent for Arafat and too demanding for Sharon. His successor, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), is more loyal to Arafat, and a more seasoned politician. But he has yet to gain the trust of Washington and Jerusalem. His planned meeting with Sharon has been put off; and unlike his predecessor, Abu Ala has failed to reach a cease-fire deal with all Palestinian factions, without which he has nothing to propose. Last week, Egypt resumed its mediation efforts, hoping to reach a deal between the Abu Ala government and the Islamic groups. Israel, meanwhile, is waiting on the sidelines for the outcome, while pledging to "respond to quiet with quiet." The Palestinian Authority is only partly functioning, struggling with growing civil unrest, rising crime and a ruined economy. Hamas, the main Islamic opposition movement, has gained more power and acceptance, but Israeli officials believe it is still far from making a serious claim to become the ruling party.
Relations between the P.A. and the U.S. worsened when three American security guards were killed near Gaza in October as they escorted a diplomatic convoy. Nobody has taken responsibility for the attack, and the Palestinian Authority hasn't made much progress in catching the perpetrators, despite strong American pressure: The Palestinians have simply ignored U.S. threats to cut aid and support. Recently, American officials have raised the possibility that Arafat is behind the coverup, since the investigation could lead to Fatah operatives. More than anything, the convoy attack and its aftermath have shown the lack of American leverage over the Palestinians, who realize that there is little more the United States can do to punish them. Obviously, following three years in which their situation has deteriorated, Palestinians feel they can rebuke America with a "so what" response.
The Israelis are far better off by comparison. The number of Palestinian terror attacks has dramatically decreased since October, and the economy is showing signs of recovery, with the generous help of American loan guarantees. A bullish stock market, a high-tech resurrection and much-waited tax reform have improved the public mood. Several months of labor unrest and strikes ended this week, signaling a triumph for finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Thatcherist reforms. The war is being waged mainly within Palestinian territory, and the Israeli security barrier continues to be built.
But despite this mildly improved reality, Sharon seems as politically vulnerable as he has ever been. Despite last year's landslide reelection and a stable coalition, the struggle for his succession is gearing up, and the political system is behaving as if Sharon will leave office during 2004. His party apparatchiks are demanding veto power over matters of peace and security, and several ministers have laid out their private policy plans. The reason for Sharon's decline has nothing to do with security or foreign policy issues: It comes from ongoing criminal investigations over alleged bribery and misusing campaign funds. No indictments have come out of the investigation, but apparently many Israeli politicians expect them.
Following a sharp decline in his public approval ratings, Sharon launched a major diplomatic initiative -- his first since taking office three years ago -- in a much-awaited policy speech on Dec. 18. While pledging to adhere to the road map, he said that if the Palestinians proved not to be serious partners for peace, "in a few months from now" he would initiate a unilateral "disconnection plan" from the Palestinians, removing some isolated Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and "strengthening our hold" in other parts of the occupied territories. Sharon's speech followed a more far-reaching declaration by his deputy, Ehud Olmert, who advocated a unilateral withdrawal from most of the territories and dismantling dozens of settlements.
Sharon's Herzliya speech marked a historic departure from his lifetime project, building the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. For the first time he indicated willingness to "relocate" some of them even without an agreement, "to improve security." As expected, Israeli attention focused on this part of the plan, and less on his explicit ultimatum to the Palestinians: If you won't negotiate, you'll receive "much less" under the unilateral plan. Sharon did not disclose how he would strengthen Israel's control over the main settlement blocks and the Jordan valley, but later talked in private about fencing these areas, which "should remain part of Israel under any future settlement." On Monday, he repeated the same messages, though in a more forceful tone, at the Likud conference, trying to reassert his leadership position there.
Sharon may be willing to remove some tiny settlements, but clearly, he hasn't abandoned his decades-old plan for the West Bank: encircling the main Palestinian population centers with two Israeli "security zones." The western zone corresponds, more or less, to the route of Israel's currently built security barrier, which includes the large settlement blocks adjacent to Israel proper. To create the eastern zone, Sharon proposed constructing an "eastern fence," separating the Palestinian areas from their main uninhabited land reserves in the Jordan valley. Thus, a Palestinian enclave would remain behind bars, on 40-odd percent of West Bank territory. The eastern fence is not even on the drawing board, but hangs in the air as the ultimate punishment for Palestinians should they prove intransigent.
Sharon's proposal allowed him to take the political initiative back from the left wing and its Geneva accord (a joint Israeli-Palestinian private peace plan). Nevertheless, his initiative came too late to win him public support, and was largely dismissed as an empty trial balloon. His right-wing coalition partners raised their expected outcry over the proposed settlement evacuation, but didn't give up their cabinet seats. "Let him implement, and then we'll resign," they say. Even the Palestinians raised only a mild protest against the unilateral fencing ideas.
The American administration, despite holding an opposite attitude toward the settlements, has had a similar response: It has pressured Sharon to fulfill minor, short-term pledges made as part of the road map, but has dismissed his larger ideas as "made for domestic political consumption" and has publicly warned Israel that it does not support unilateral moves if they prejudge final status issues. "We won't oppose settlement removal," said a senior American official. Under American prodding, Sharon signed orders to remove several unauthorized settlement "outposts," but they have yet to be dismantled. Many Israelis doubt if he would survive politically if he were to go further, and in any case, there is little domestic pressure on the government to remove settlements.
Given the lack of direct negotiations and American mediation, the main diplomatic arena has moved to The Hague, Netherlands, home of the International Court of Justice. The Palestinians won a diplomatic coup last month, when the U.N. General Assembly decided to ask the court's legal opinion about the Israeli "construction of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory." The ICJ's "advisory opinion" is not binding, but its expected ruling against the project will inevitably deliver a diplomatic blow to Israel. Preparing for the hearings on Feb. 23, Israeli officials decided to deny the court's authority over the matter, but also to present the reasoning for the fence construction.
In order to bury the court's expected ruling, Israel will need American backing. The United States has publicly objected to the fence route, but has only slapped Israel's wrist: The Bush administration made a token cut in loan guarantees, but did not seriously pressure its ally to change the route, beyond minor modifications to protect private property. Israeli officials believe that Washington has accepted de facto the security reasoning behind the project, but that it strongly opposes the proposed eastern fence, viewing it as a political move for annexing territory. Even some of Sharon's close confidants doubt the political feasibility of the project, given America's objections.
The vacuum on the Palestinian front invited the Syrians back into the picture. When Assad presented his new peace call in a New York Times interview, on Dec. 1, he met with cold responses from Jerusalem and Washington. Officials in both capitals said that Damascus acted because it felt pressured by the new, sanctions-threatening Syrian Responsibility Act, signed recently by Bush. Slowly, however, the newly emerged Syrian option ignited a new debate in Israel, much to Sharon's chagrin. From 1991 to 2000, the Syrian track was a pet endeavor of Israeli leaders, who preferred talking to the late president Hafez Assad (father of the current Syrian dictator) over the more pressing, but far more complicated and politically sensitive Palestinian issue. Time and again, negotiations broke down, as Israel refused to fully withdraw from the Golan Heights (which, like the West Bank, it captured in the 1967 war) and Assad avoided making any public gesture of peace and reconciliation. When Sharon took office in 2001, he declined to revive negotiations with Syria, demanding instead that it stop supporting terrorism.
The Bush administration, unlike its predecessor, adopted the same tough line toward Assad's regime. It even supported Israel's bombing of an alleged terrorist camp near Damascus in October, following a suicide attack in a Haifa restaurant.
In fact, Israel still has no intention of leaving the steep ridges and valleys of the Golan, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. But its politicians find the territory a useful tool for their own purposes. Foreign minister Silvan Shalom, who opposes Sharon's new unilateralism, asked Sharon "not to ignore a hand extended for peace" and called for him to resume negotiations with Damascus. From the other side, Likud's right-winger Yisrael Katz, the agriculture minister, approved a plan to create more jobs in the Golan villages, aiming to double their population. His timing was perfect, on the eve of this Monday's Likud conference (Katz, a former Sharon aide and later Netanyahu's confidant, is the conference's co-chairman). Sharon had thus already been twice embarrassed when the military intelligence chief, Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash, told Sunday's cabinet meeting that "Assad is serious." Sharon quickly extracted another statement from the general, relating to Syria's ongoing sponsorship of terrorism. Sharon made clear that any future negotiations will start from scratch, rejecting Assad's demand that they start from the withdrawal proposals of former Israeli governments.
Washington, however, wasn't too impressed either by the Syrian opening or by Katz's Golan development plan. Its main concern is to avoid an escalation on the northern front, especially along Israel's Lebanese border, where the militant group Hezbollah has deployed thousands of rockets. Peace negotiations there appear even less promising than on the Palestinian track.
In recent weeks, a new opportunity has arisen, following Libya's agreement to forgo its WMD programs and Iran's acceptance of deeper international oversight of its nuclear installations. Washington kept Israel in the dark during its secret talks with Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. But when the news came out, Arab leaders demanded that Israel's nuclear program be subject to similar oversight, leading Israeli officials to turn their interest to regional arms control, fearing that Israel will be asked to play its part -- especially if Syria is next to disarm.
Israel has had a long-standing tacit agreement with successive American administrations over its nuclear program, secretly developed in the late '50s and early '60s. As long as Israel faces strong rejectionism in the region, Washington will turn a blind's eye toward the Israeli nuclear deterrent. In return, Israel has pledged to maintain a policy of nuclear "ambiguity," avoiding acknowledging or testing nukes; its official position calls for nuclear demilitarization of the Middle East "in due time." The Arabs responded to Israel's nuclear possessions by developing and deploying arsenals of chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles. A previous attempt to discuss regional arms control in the 1990s failed, mainly due to Israeli-Egyptian deadlock over the nuclear issue.
Some Israeli officials anticipated the revival of the issue, and in late 2002 correctly predicted that following a war in Iraq, the Bush administration would turn to the arms control arena, after trying and finding no Palestinian partner. They circulated copies of Bush Sr.'s regional arms control plan of 1991, which called for freezing, and then dismantling, Israel's Dimona reactor. While the elder Bush's plan has never been implemented, and has long been off the table, some new version of it may come up again.
American officials have calmed Israelis by promising to maintain America's hands-off approach to Israel's nuclear deterrent, its ultimate weapon and "national insurance policy." There may be some movement on other, less controversial issues, like ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Israel signed in 1993 but refuses to ratify until Syria and Egypt make reciprocal moves. Assad, for his part, has already rejected any talk of Syrian disarmament before Israel.
These steps are still further down the road, but a senior Israeli diplomat told me that among the three possible advance routes, the arms control track appears to be more promising than the Syrian or Palestinian peace tracks. But progress on arms control offers only a superficial change in a stalemated reality. Bush is focused on reelection, and such times are never ripe for diplomatic courage in the Middle East. "People believe that Bush's reluctance to intervene here stems from his need for Jewish electoral support, but it's largely exaggerated," said the official. "Bush is more influenced by his instincts, and they tell him to avoid risking his prestige in lost endeavors." Of course, the two motivations aren't mutually exclusive. It's hard to evaluate the relative forces within the president's mind, but in Bush's case, the political need to cater Jewish and Christian evangelical support fits well with his "success only, no risks taken" philosophy.
In recent months, since the fall of Abu Mazen in early September, relations between Sharon and the White House have cooled somewhat. The Israeli leader, once the most frequent guest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, has not visited Washington since late July, and no invitation appears forthcoming. With the National Security Council preoccupied with Iraq, the State Department has gained more influence and the Bush administration has taken a more critical tone toward Israel, especially over the need to seriously dismantle settlement outposts and ease the humanitarian situation in Palestinan areas. And America responded coolly to Sharon's unilateral-separation plan. However, even if Bush and other officials are angry at Sharon for not keeping his word on the outposts, that doesn't change the basic political realities. Time and again in the past three years, these annoyances have evaporated: Israel is still on the "good" side of the war on terrorism, and in any case, Washington insists that it can't move forward without a credible Palestinian side. American officials still insist that Bush is committed to his vision and to the road map, but nothing is happening on the ground. Hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians will have to wait at least until this year of absence is over and a new administration -- or the same one -- takes office.