One of the most striking phenomena of recent weeks, given the stepped-up launching of Qassam rockets on Sderot, the painful incident at Kerem Shalom, and the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, is the absence of the American factor. True, there have been telephone conversations with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. ambassador in Israel receives updates, and the U.S. ambassador at the United Nations objects to resolutions calling on Israel to end its military operation in the Gaza Strip. But in terms of direct influence on the ground, there has been absolute American silence.
I'm trying to think about the past, and I recall the Nixon administration's involvement in the airlift that saved Israel during the Yom Kippur War; I remember the Carter administration that brought to a successful end the Camp David summit in 1978 and peace between Israel and Egypt; there is the Reagan administration that through its envoy, Philip Habib, contributed to a cease-fire between Israel and the PLO in July 1981 (one that was staunchly preserved by both sides until the Begin-Sharon government decided to embark on the Lebanon War); the government of Bush Sr., which led the way to the Madrid conference in 1991 and opened a new chapter for the Middle East; and there is the intensive involvement of Clinton in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the 1990s, which began with the Oslo Accords, continued with an address before the PLO institutions in Gaza to convince them to change the Palestinian constitution, and ended with his participation in the Sharm el-Sheikh Conference, aiming to bring about calm in the region following the horrific terrorist attacks in early 1996.
September 11 and its aftermath, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and the Iraqi quagmire have resulted in a United States that is nearly entirely absent from any involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Bush has not visited Israel since he was governor of Texas. The various envoys he dispatched to the area have failed to make the slightest impact. The administration will grant its blessing to any Israeli withdrawal on the condition that it will not commit it to anything, including any sort of financial expense.
When Bush writes to us that as part of any peace agreement there may be a need to take into account the facts that have been created on the ground, we are so excited it brings tears to our eyes. No one has really bothered to explain to us exactly how this statement would affect serious negotiations on an agreement between Israel and the PLO.
The United States is cut off from a number of Muslim countries. It does not have any form of dialogue with Iran or Syria, it boycotts the Hamas government, and all that is left for Rice to do is call Israel, Egypt and Jordan. When the latest crisis broke out, as the firing of Qassam rockets increased and the violence intensified, Israel, naturally, turned to the same agent that enabled it to withdraw from the Gaza Strip - Egypt. It was President Hosni Mubarak that went into the heart of the matter and dispatched his intelligence chief, who demanded that a doctor be allowed to see Gilad Shalit, and is now busy trying to mediate between the factions.
The United States was not even mentioned as an option. The White House spokesman on duty did take the time to inform the world that it was Israel's right to defend itself, but said it should do so carefully. Thanks a lot. Really. A different administration, in a different situation, would have sent a special envoy to the region who would shuttle between Syria, Gaza and Jerusalem, trying to calm things down, threatening, promising, fuming - all in order to end the crisis.
The worsening violent conflict in the Middle East is a blatant reflection of the weakness of the American partner. At the moment of truth, when Israel needs a powerful third party capable of moving things in the area, it turns out that little beyond the repetitive recitation of Bush's vision and of the dust-covered road map can be expected, which neither side intends to actually implement.
The writer is chairman of Meretz-Yahad