WASHINGTON - Washington's initial reaction to the Geneva Accords could only be interpreted as dismissive. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "This is a private effort, we were not part of it," when he found about the existence of the accords. The United States, emphasized Boucher, continues to adhere to the road map as a plan for bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians and for the realization of the vision of two states. After only three weeks, the disdainful voices in Washington have already become muted, in favor of a certain interest, albeit guarded, in the alternative peace initiatives that have sprung up in recent months.
The greatest surprise came from Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. In a speech at Georgetown University last Thursday, Wolfowitz seemed to be declaring support for another alternative peace plan: the Ayalon-Nusseibeh initiative. Referring to the principles of the solution presented by President George W. Bush on June 24 of last year - i.e. recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state within secure and recognized borders, the establishment of a Palestinian state that will bring an end to the occupation and that will live in peace with its neighbors - Wolfowitz said, "There are thousands of Israelis and Palestinians who feel the same way. How do I know? Well, right now there is a significant grassroots movement that already has some 90,000 Israeli signatures and some 60,000 Palestinian signatures in support of principles that look very much like the road map favoring a two-state solution."
Wolfowitz added: "I had the privilege last week of meeting with the two organizers of that petition, Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian, and Ami Ayalon, an Israeli." In his opinion, "One of the keys to achieving peace is to somehow mobilize majorities on both sides so that the extremists who oppose it can be isolated. As Americans, we know there are times when great changes can spring from the grassroots."
Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh had a successful visit to the United States. They were able to meet with senior representatives in the U.S. administration and to receive the support of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as well as a great deal of good press. The lead editorial in last Friday's New York Times called for adoption both of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan and the Geneva Accords, as soon as possible, before the opportunity of realizing the two-state idea is lost.
The Clinton precedent
Is the United States really opening the door to other peace plans? The answer is complicated. The official American establishment still adheres to the version of the State Department spokesman issued three weeks ago, which states that the road map is the only game in town. The words of Paul Wolfowitz, which were read as part of a prepared text and were not said off the cuff during the question period, do in fact point to interest, not to say support, but it is doubtful whether they express anything beyond his personal view. "It doesn't look like a substantial change in the administration's position," says Meyrav Wurmser, Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute, which is considered close to neo-conservative circles, which include Wolfowitz himself.
Wurmser believes that Wolfowitz, the man who is to a great extent responsible for the American war in Iraq, is not signaling his intention of getting involved in Middle Eastern affairs, both because the administration is up to its neck in Iraqi issues, and because the Middle East peace process is known to be destructive of political careers in Washington. Wurmser also thinks the Geneva Accords will be even less popular in the administration, because of their "European spirit ... In the administration they are paying attention to it only out of politeness. It's a result of the allergy in this town to anything that comes from Europe," says Wurmser.
M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, a Washington research institute that is known for its dovish views, takes a different approach. "I think that eventually they will seize the opportunity," he says, referring to the U.S. administration. He says the only thing preventing the administration at the moment from thoroughly examining the alternative peace plans is the fact that they are all busy attempting to solve the Iraqi problem. "Everyone I speak to in the last couple of months was taken to deal with Iraq, no matter what his area of responsibility is. There is simply no one to deal with finding solutions for the Middle East," says Rosenberg.
Even in the past the U.S. administration didn't tend to attribute much importance to Israeli-Arab contacts that took place through non-official channels and through what is called "the second channel." But when these contacts ripened, the administration rushed to embrace them. An outstanding example is the Oslo Accords, which were reached behind the back of the Americans. The moment then-president Bill Clinton felt that a significant understanding had been reached, he quickly invited the sides to sign the agreement, and became its main sponsor.
One of the major difficulties of the administration in expressing support for one of the new peace initiatives, or for all of them, is the question of whether this will be considered an admission of failure of the road map. Officially, the Bush administration continues to swear by the road map, and to argue that it is still alive and well, even if it has encountered certain difficulties. Sources in Washington believe the problem can be overcome by presenting the new programs as a way of achieving the goals of the road map, since what is important is the result defined in the road map - a two-state solution - rather than the way in which the solution is reached.
But while the official administration is demonstrating a cool attitude toward the attempts to bypass the Israeli and Palestinian governments, and to reach understandings outside of the governmental framework, unofficial Washington is displaying a thirst for alternative initiatives. The unusual visit to the city of three central Fatah activists from the younger generation, activists who are connected, at least according to hawkish factors in the U.S. capital, to the Tanzim organization. The person responsible for inviting the three - Ahmed Ghneim, Qadura Fares and Hatim Abdel Qadar - was none other than Dennis Ross, former coordinator of peace talks in the administration, and presently the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an important research group that is considered to predominantly pro-Israeli positions.
Although the three Fatah representatives have presented a plan for a cease-fire to the members of the institute, and have spoken about the importance of reforms in the Palestinian Authority, they haven't aroused much of a reaction in the capital. On the part of the administration they had to make do with a meeting with the Deputy Assistant for Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, and in Congress they met with a group of Democratic legislators only.
The visit of the three managed to arouse a storm within the Washington Institute. The Jewish weekly The Forward reported that some of the members of the board of trustees of the institute had protested the invitation of the three to Washington, because they had expressed public support of armed activity against Israel. The institute director Dennis Ross was forced to send a letter of clarification to all the members of the board, in which he said, "This group has authenticity and it wants to make peace with Israel." He also said, "If Arafat is irredeemable, it is important to focus on a younger generation."
A shock for Bush
When President George W. Bush went to visit Asia last month, his aides said he was shocked by the intensity of anti-American feelings he encountered, and by the constantly repeated claim that the United States is biased toward Israel in the Middle East conflict. His aides tried in vain to emphasize that this is the first president in the history of the United States who has declared his desire for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, who first used the name Palestine to describe that state, and who initiated a peace plan in order to bring about the establishment of this independent state. Among the Muslim community in Asia, as in the rest of the world, Bush is paying the price for his unreserved support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his struggle to have Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat deposed.
Last week, Bush tried to mend one of the rifts with the Muslims, when he hosted Muslim leaders in the United States at an Iftar meal, the meal that ends the fasting during the month of Ramadan. Here too Bush managed to come into conflict with the Muslim and Arab American leadership. Several major organizations boycotted the event in protest at the fact that the administration is not conducting any meaningful dialogue with the Muslim community in the United States, and on subjects close to their hearts at home and abroad. One of the organizations even held a public protest meal not far from the White House. In the end, those who came to Bush's dinner were primarily Muslim ambassadors stationed in the city.
The alternative peace initiatives will not salvage the status of George W. Bush among Muslim and Arabs in the United States and all over the world. However, groups that deal with the subject of the Middle East believe the new initiatives can provide the administration with quite a lot of what it is looking for from now until the elections in a year from now - a little quiet in the area itself, a sense of progress and activity, and an opportunity to return cautiously to the Middle Eastern arena. Will the administration try to adopt these peace plans, contrary to the position of the Israeli government? The experts agree that such a step does not seem logical. "If Sharon will say `no way,' the Americans will not fight with him," says M.J. Rosenberg. But he adds that "If he will give an ambiguous response, like he did in the past, the administration may see that as an Israeli consent to discuss the alternative plans."
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