Hope Springs Eternal in the Middle East

Martin S. Indyk

There is a strange disconnect between the new consensus that has developed in Washington about the need to engage in Middle East peacemaking and the reality on the ground that seems certain to render such efforts futile. But in the Middle East, things are never what they seem. Ground that looks on the surface to be arid in fact contains the seeds of a new Israeli-Arab peace partnership. If properly nurtured by a newly engaged Secretary of State, they can yet yield the fruits of reconciliation.

For six years, the Bush Administration resisted the notion that peacemaking in the Middle East could advantage its interests there. Early on, President Bush reached the judgment that his predecessor’s efforts were a waste of time. Transformation in the Middle East would take place on his watch not through peacemaking but through war-making, regime change and democratization. Six years later, Bush’s strategy lies in ruins, generating a new receptivity in Washington to relaunching the Middle East peace process.

Joining the new consensus are the usual suspects who argue that the failure to solve the Palestinian problem is the root cause of America’s difficulties in the region. These voices from a bygone era were not able to get much traction even when their views were repackaged in the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report. However, they have now been joined by a more influential group of “neo-realists” whose passion for democratization has been replaced by concern for the emerging threat from Iran. In their view, Iran’s rise in the region can only be countered by the development of a new coalition of regional moderates that includes the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Turkey and Israel. Since these neighbors face a common threat from Iran, the assumption in Washington is that they have a common interest in working together. The “neo-realists” recognize that such a virtual alliance can only cohere with the glue of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that would enable the Sunni Arabs to cohabit with Israel and would encourage Israel to strengthen the weakest links in this new chain—the Sunni leaders of Palestine and Lebanon.

Consequently, while George Bush despatches another carrier battle group to the Gulf and orders American forces to take on Iranian trouble-makers in Iraq, his Secretary of State has committed to making Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation her first priority. Condoleeza Rice will host a trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas in mid-February, and has committed to monthly visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah until she has prepared the ground for a major peace initiative.

All of this would be welcome news if it didn’t come so late in the game. Six years of neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by the Bush Administration has left the ground seemingly unfertile for this new effort. No meaningful process can be constructed without the active involvement of Israel. Yet its prime minister is engaged in a struggle for survival. His approval ratings are below 14 percent. He has an incompetent defense minister who can’t be fired because he heads up the Labor Party, Olmert’s main coalition partner. And now the prime minister faces a criminal investigation. His first priority, necessarily, is to stabilize his government. Without that he cannot pursue a peace process which is inherently destabilizing because of the politically fraught issues involved (settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, etc.).

On the other side, Olmert’s putative partner, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, is engaged in his own struggle for survival with a Hamas government that seeks to replace Israel not negotiate peace with it. Preoccupied with negotiations with Hamas in Damascus while fighting it in the streets of Gaza, Abbas is hardly in a position now to enter peace negotiations with Israel. He lacks both a mandate and an ability to deliver.

Moreover, Rice is no longer able to wield American influence in a way that might compensate for the weakness of the local partners. Facing defeat in Iraq, a doubting public at home, and a Democrat-controlled Congress, her president is hardly going to devote the waning years of his presidency to a peacemaking endeavor which he has never believed in. And without presidential backing and engagement, it’s difficult to imagine that Rice could overcome the formidable obstacles to progress.

Nevertheless, the situation is not as bleak as it appears. Iran’s play for regional hegemony is helping to forge unusual alliances in response. The first is between Olmert and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah cannot accept Persian, Shia Iran’s attempt to be the arbiter of Arab interests in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. He knows that Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are popular in the Sunni Arab streets of Riyadh and Cairo. Their promise of dignity and justice through violence, terrorism and defiance of the international community is a potent and dangerous brew. Abdullah can only counter it by showing that his way of moderation and peacemaking can provide a better future for the Arab world. Hence his interest in relaunching his Saudi Peace Plan, and his involvement in efforts to bolster Mahmoud Abbas.

For Olmert, Saudi involvement in peacemaking can help to compensate for the Israeli public’s disillusionment with the Palestinians as partners. Abdullah’s offer of real peace with the Arab world, if lent credibility at the appropriate moment by direct Saudi involvement with Israel, could boost Olmert’s ability to sell a West Bank withdrawal to Israelis who are keen to be rid of the burden of the West Bank but don’t see a credible Arab partner to take responsibility for it.

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The second unusual emerging partnership is between Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian leader, like his Saudi counterpart, is threatened by Iranian backing for Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and even renegades in his own Fatah party. Iran is blocking an Egyptian-brokered prisoner swap and is pressing Hamas hardliners to veto Abbas’ efforts to forge a National Unity Government because it knows that these are precursors to peace negotiations between Olmert and Abbas. Olmert understands that it is in Israel’s interests to strengthen Abbas in his struggle with Iran and Hamas, which is why he just handed over $100 million, agreed to Egypt’s transfer of weapons to Abbas’ security forces, and is using the Israeli army systematically to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure in the West Bank.

It is too early for these emerging partnerships to yield a viable peace negotiation. But it is not too early for a newly engaged Secretary of State to start to put the building blocks in place. Rebuilding the capabilities of the Palestinian Presidency, concerting the virtual alliance between Sunni Arab leaders and Israel, and sustaining a conversation with Abbas and Olmert about the framework for negotiations are the necessary first steps. Germany and the EU will have an important role to play in supporting and encouraging these efforts. And once the process is launched, perhaps six months from now, they will have the responsibility of carrying it through the next presidential election cycle in the United States. Who knows, from these modest beginnings, nurtured by a common Iranian threat and the hope for peace that still lies in many Israeli and Palestinian hearts, great things may eventually grow.