In a meeting in Brussels last month with female leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reported that talks between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmed Qureia, seem to be going much better than how they are portrayed in the media. She said chances were not bad that the two sides would implement the Annapolis dream of reaching an agreement by the end of 2008.
Last week, Rice came to the region to make sure that when her president returns to Jerusalem next week, he will not go home empty-handed. As always, the senior American stateswoman did not enter the negotiating room; she received a report from both sides about the talks on borders, refugees and Jerusalem. Oh, excuse me - according to the agreement with Shas, Jerusalem is outside the bounds of negotiations.
But the representative of the world's strongest power did not make do with updates; Rice rapped on Defense Minister Ehud Barak's desk and demanded that he immediately order a series of steps to make daily life easier in the West Bank.
She managed to extricate a promise from the defense minister of a country whose population is around 2 percent of that of the United States to dismantle 50 roadblocks in the West Bank. Fifty out of more than 500 roadblocks, dirt heaps and cement blocks. Less than a dozen of them were meant to keep terrorists out of Israel. All the rest serve the settlements established in contravention of the official position of every American administration and the outposts established in breach of the law that Israel itself imposed on the territories.
In an instructive article published by the U.S./Middle East Project, Frederic Hof - who used to head the Mitchell Committee staff - writes that in April 2001, a few weeks after he submitted the Mitchell Report to the State Department, Sen. George Mitchell spoke on the phone with the new secretary of state at the time, Colin Powell.
Mitchell said the report's recommendations on the cessation of violence and confidence building between the two sides, including freezing construction in the settlements and renewing political negotiations, would not be implemented on their own. Mitchell noted that in light of the mutual lack of confidence between Israel and the Palestinians, nothing would happen unless the United States firmly led the process.
Hof believes that an American effort to help implement the report could have stopped the deteriorating situation in the territories and brought both sides back to the negotiating table.
Unfortunately, he writes, "I came quickly to the unhappy conclusion relatively soon after the report's release that there had never been any intention on the part of the Bush administration to do any heavy lifting to help the parties implement the report's recommendations." The Quartet also made do with submitting the road map to the two sides, and ordered them to cope on their own with the heavy challenge of setting a timetable and monitoring the fulfillment of their commitments.
Former U.S. president Richard Nixon wrote in his memoirs that the key to resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict is a forced settlement that is not referred to as such. Former president Bill Clinton convened Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David and proposed a detailed draft, without coercing: If they want, they'll take it and if not, they won't. U.S. President George W. Bush specialized in ceremonies and speeches. Hof writes that the impact of the road map is reminiscent of Winston Churchill's description of Benito Mussolini: "Big appetite, bad teeth."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have repeatedly said they are committed to the two-state solution. Both of them agree, more or less, on the principles of an agreement. Both of them are maneuvering between the fear of being toppled by the camp that opposes the political process and the risk that the neighboring government will be toppled by opponents of compromise.
It would be far easier for both of them to win domestic support for a peace agreement that the United States played an active role in preparing. When Bush wants to influence reality, as in the case of Iraq, he does not hide behind the dubious excuse that the United States cannot interfere in another country's internal matters.
The United States does not need to send its boys to risk their lives in the Nablus market or the outposts of the Hebron Hills. But the U.S. has not fulfilled its obligation simply by removing a few roadblocks from the West Bank. The least required of the American president who forced the elections that brought Hamas to power is to translate his "vision" into a peace treaty.
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