The delay in approving Tony Blair's appointment as the Quartet Mideast envoy said something about George W. Bush's deteriorating international status.
The eyes of George Bush, the leader of the world's superpower, and his good friend Tony Blair, who until yesterday was among Europe's most important leaders, were turned toward Jerusalem Tuesday. Four bureaucrats were discussing Bush's proposal to appoint Blair as the Quartet's special envoy to the Middle East. The four spoke for a long time and emerged from the meeting without a response, putting the ball back in their bosses' court in Washington, Moscow, Brussels and New York.
The Quartet works by consensus, and this is Russian President Vladimir Putin's opportunity to settle two matters with one humiliation. He found a loyal partner in Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy coordinator, who did not need a senior European politician crawling between his feet. Gordon Brown, the new resident at 10 Downing Street, also did not go out of his way to arrange a job for the outgoing tenant. He would rather Blair clear the way for him to make headlines. But still, this is not how you treat the U.S. president.
Before Blair's appointment was approved later yesterday, members of the Tel Aviv diplomatic community said they believed the Russians and Europeans would celebrate their little victory over America before giving their approval. Generally, a request from the U.S. president would go directly to the "big Quartet" - the U.S. secretary of state, the Russian foreign minister, the European Union foreign policy coordinator and the UN secretary general. The 24-hour delay in Blair's appointment says something about Bush's deteriorated status. When Bush decided in May 2005 that James Wolfensohn should be the Quartet emissary, the appointment was easily approved. The Wolfensohn experience teaches us Blair will not forgive Bush for this humiliating rite of passage.
Wolfensohn, a Jewish millionaire who headed the World Bank, did not suffer from a lack of funds. Until Hamas' election victory, the Palestinian Authority received plenty of money from donor countries, and salaries were paid more or less on time. Wolfensohn's primary obstacle was the Israel Defense Forces checkpoints, which choked the Palestinians' economy and social life. Wolfensohn, who predicted Hamas' win, warned Bush that if he did not demand Ariel Sharon remove the internal checkpoints, he would give up his post. Bush settled the matter by dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to get Ariel Sharon to sign the crossings agreement. This turned out to be just another paper in the cemetery of unimplemented accords.
If Blair does not get a written commitment from Bush stating that the release of PA funds will be accompanied by the opening of roads and factories, he will curse the day he agreed to this adventure. Money alone will not contribute to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' prestige; nothing has caused greater damage to Fatah's standing among the average unemployed Palestinian than the sight of functionaries' Mercedes parked outside grand Ramallah restaurants.
Solana considers Abbas a lifesaver, and expects the Olmert government to invite him for negotiations. He has told European Parliament members that the most worrisome aspect of the peace process is Israel's lack of interest in discussing borders with the Palestinians. Marc Otte, the European Union special representative for the Middle East peace process, said that if circumstances were not ripe for permanent-status negotiations, more modest proposals may be discussed with Abbas to strengthen his position. The plan he described was based on evacuating isolated settlements in coordination with the Palestinians; assurances that the temporary border will not be the permanent border; an arrangement for European monitors along the Israel-Jordan border similar to that in Rafah; the opening of a port in Gaza; and passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
These things were reported here a year ago, following Israel's disengagement from Gaza and from its Palestinian partner, and Hamas' election victory ("Europe is Dissatisfied Again," June 24, 2006). Then, too, there was talk of "the last opportunity" to save Abbas and the two-state solution.
Two days ago, after leaving the Quartet meeting, Otte said he was determined not to use the "window of opportunity" cliche anymore - the time finally has come to find the door. In a conversation with Haaretz, the European emissary also addressed the "diplomatic horizon" cliche. "We have to stop talking about a theoretical Palestinian state and start promoting it practically. A state is not built in the sky and in the imagination, but on the solid ground of reality," he says.
In order not to say "too little, too late" again, Otte encourages learning from past errors - such as ignoring the indicators that Gaza was about to fall into Hamas' hands. "When Abbas asked for arms and other means to fight the extremists, they said committees must be convened and discussions held. The bad people used this time to fortify their power," he says. He is convinced that one cannot expect a Palestinian policeman to jail his cousin if he is not working toward the clear goal of "ending the occupation."
That is why he supports the plan by Rice and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to present the parties with written principles for a final status agreement, "so that everyone will see we are moving in the right direction."
Yes, he certainly means negotiations over all the issues - borders, Jerusalem and refugees. "We have seen equally difficult conflicts for which a solution was found through negotiation," continues the Belgian diplomat. "To do that, it is not enough to move a few checkpoints. The conflict-management approach must be replaced by a search for a solution. They have to talk to the Palestinians as equals, not like natives during the colonial era."
Otte hints Europe is also partly responsible for the deterioration. "We have a problem deciding on an agenda," he says, and agrees that EU must stop being dragged along by American policy.
The Australian Alexander Downer is the democratic world's longest serving foreign minister. A foreign minister with more than 10 years of experience, like Downer, who was in Jerusalem this week, does not easily fall into the trap of unexperienced interviewees. Downer's comments about Bush to Haaretz two days ago presumably are not an unfortunate slip of the tongue.
In contrast to other members of the coalition in Iraq, who are searching for any way out, Australian Prime Minister John Howard supported Bush's decision to send more troops. Senator Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate, suggested Howard set a personal example and send more Australian troops to Baghdad.
Downer does not regret the decision to support Bush's policy. Even today, after everything that has happened in Iraq, Australia would encourage Bush to go back there, he suggests. "In another 20 years, the historians will ask how another president would have reacted to September 11 and if he had alternatives. Bush did not have to go into Iraq, but what would have happened if Saddam Hussein had emerged from the battle against the U.S. and the whole world with the upper hand? Where would we be today if in addition to the Iranian threat, we would have had to deal with Saddam? Do you believe that Iraq would have become a factor advocating quiet? Would the Middle East have been a safer place when a dictator like Saddam controls vast oil resources and strives to obtain weapons of mass destruction?"
In his opinion, Bush is paying for irregularities in the Florida elections, which the president himself had nothing to do with. Downer has no doubt that Bush one day will be far more appreciated than he is right now. The Australian foreign minister also has nothing bad to say about Bush's low profile regarding final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He agrees the Palestinian crisis is creating an opportunity to renew negotiations, but says the hawkish parties should take advantage of this opportunity, not the Americans. If and when Olmert reaches an agreement with Abbas that includes an "international component," Australia will be ready to send a force to the territories, and will consider absorbing Palestinian refugees.
The Arabs of Judea and Samaria
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit clearly involved great care and consideration. This is also true of the repeated appeal to "the residents of Judea and Samaria." Olmert was not talking to the settlers. He promised the Palestinians, "residents of Judea and Samaria," that if they behave nicely, he would give them a state in "Judea and Samaria." The problem is that many of them have not heard of "Judea and Samaria." And those who have heard of it think "Judea and Samaria" is part of the Greater Land of Israel, the land of the settlers.
Olmert is not the only one using these terms. Internal Military Intelligence documents, even after Oslo and the disengagement, refer to residents of the territories, Jews and Arabs, as "residents of the Judea and Samaria region and the Gaza Strip." This is not just semantics. It is a worldview. At Camp David, 28 years ago, Menachem Begin asked that the agreement with Egypt state "the Arabs of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza region."