By Caelum Moffatt
When people around the world read about the international deeds of ‘America’ or the ‘US’ in the newspaper or watch their interaction with other countries on TV, the interested party will invariably formulate the same conclusion – the United States is the most powerful country in the world. This assessment is indeed correct; the US is the world’s only superpower, a country labeled as the “land of the free, home of the brave” and according to French President Nicholas Sarkozy, “the greatest democracy in the world”.
Adorned with such appellations and titles, one understandably would not be mistaken to directly correlate this supposedly infallible and indisputable ability to wield power with the capacity to influence or effect change.
The US has attempted to adopt this position as a paternalistic world figure. However, as George W. Bush comes to the end of his second term as US President, he leaves his successor with an inheritance fraught with insecurity, unpredictability and deteriorating health. Not only is the national economy in disarray but the US is currently deeply embedded in international politics and diplomacy. Suffering severe losses from economically draining and arduous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the subsequent threat of terror; nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea as well as frosty relations with Russia over US involvement in eastern Europe, the US is overstretched, even by the standards expected of a world superpower.
With all of these commitments to the global community, where on the US’s list of priorities is their self proclaimed dedication to reaching a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians by January 2009? In the last week, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have both graced the region with a visit. This should be enough of a demonstration of intent, or is it? President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rice have all come to the region since Annapolis but normally as part of a wider trip with a specific agenda. President Bush came to the holy land but spent most of his time in the Gulf States; Vice President Cheney did the same and Condoleezza Rice’s most recent three days in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan was a quick stop off before joining the President in Romania for a NATO meeting. Of course, the itinerary emphasizes the need for a Palestinian state by the end of Bush’s term but assessing the route of the trip, one is slightly suspicious that other topics – oil, Iran and eastern Europe are more of an immediate concern and therefore supersede the importance of resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
This is particularly apparent when one monitors and evaluates the success made at these discussions which involve Secretary Rice [officially the most traveled US Secretary of State] city hopping back and forth between Jerusalem and Amman.
Secretary Rice’s decision to visit the various parties charged with reaching a peace agreement came amidst communication breakdown, diplomatic stagnation and little progress just four months after the Annapolis summit, where both sides agreed to implement stage one of the road map.
Before her arrival, Arab states had gathered in Damascus [with the exception of Lebanon and the heads of states of US allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt] where they concluded that the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed in 2002, would have to be reviewed if Israel continued to adopt an uncooperative and dismissive stance towards it. President Abbas stated that the “solution which Israel is designing consists of a group of cantons on a land separated by settlements, the separation wall and road blocks”.
While Condoleezza Rice sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for dinner on arrival, had breakfast with Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and then a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, her queries were answered and her fears were allayed when hearing that Israel had a common interest concerning the need for a sustainable Palestinian economy, reiterated their commitment to a peace agreement and promised to make certain concessions to the Palestinians as “gestures of good faith”.
Israel publicly announced that they would establish Palestinian police stations in Area B [an area comprising a quarter of the West Bank where Israel is in control of the security]; planned to grant 5,000 permits for Palestinians to join the 18,500 already allowed to work in Israel; approve the building of 5,000-8,000 homes to be built outside Ramallah; send 125 vehicles and 25 out of 50 armored personnel carriers to aid Abbas in securing the West Bank; permit 700 PA soldiers, trained in Jordan, to be deployed in Jenin to ensure security; grant 1,500 Palestinian business owners easier passage through checkpoints; remove 50 roadblocks in the West Bank and support economic projects in Palestinian areas.
At first sight these seem like generous dispensations, but in reality, they are barely a gesture, will probably be hugely postponed if they happen at all while their implementation is essentially impossible to track. The PA should be able to station security forces in Jenin and build houses in Ramallah as its wishes. In any event, overall security responsibility will remain in Israel’s hands, which negates the whole point of their deployment. In addition the 50 “roadblocks” Barak plans to remove are inconsequential dirt mounds placed in the middle of roads. Israeli soldiers can still erect a flying checkpoint whenever and wherever they wish.
Secretary Rice thought, like her boss, that her presence would force Israelis and Palestinians to make serious movements towards an agreement and from her consultations and updates from Israeli officials, she may have convinced herself that this is true.
All Israel is doing is appeasing the US on a short term basis to buy time until the confusion presented by a new President delegates the Israeli/Palestinian issue to the bottom of the pile. Israel, when under the international spotlight has made such promises before, examples of which can be seen as recent as November.
Prior to Annapolis, on November 19, Prime Minister Olmert declared that Israel had “committed…under the roadmap not to build new settlements in the West Bank and we will not build any”. This is in stark contrast to what has happened since. Peace Now, an Israeli organization which monitors Israeli settlement activity, reported this week that since Annapolis, 101 settlement areas continue to be expanded in the West Bank while 747 permits have been granted for the expansion of settlements in occupied east Jerusalem with plans for a further 3,648. Additionally, as a result of Annapolis, Barak stated that Israel would remove 24 roadblocks and one checkpoint. The Defense Minister may have been true to his word but the amount of checkpoints has actually risen, not diminished, since Annapolis from 563 to 580. Israel also, as a token of good faith and commitment, released 429 prisoners after Annapolis [there are currently over 11,000 Palestinian prisoners]. However, the 429 prisoners were coming to the end of their terms anyway and in the period stemming from the announcement of Annapolis by President Bush in mid July until the summit took place at the end of November, 1,714 Palestinians were arrested by Israel. Furthermore, since the end of Annapolis, Israel has killed approximately 350 Palestinians. These are not the actions of a serious advocate for peace, a party willing to compromise or one that truly believed Olmert’s words when he said that “Annapolis is a difficult process that involves risks on our part…if we do not take these risks we will force greater dangers”.
Secretary Rice seemed satisfied with the outcome of her visit claiming, “I think it is a very good start”. By saying this, Condoleezza Rice indirectly implied that her visit was a failure. To refer to the situation as being a “good start” reinforces the notion that nothing has been achieved, since the “start” was meant to be immediately after Annapolis four months ago.
As Condoleezza Rice frantically rushes around the world in an attempt to remedy some of the mistakes made by President Bush’s administration, desperate to establish a legacy memorable for something other than war, terrorism and a weak dollar, the US seems to have spread its bets to maximize the chance of success. Therefore, all Condoleezza Rice requires is to hear that something is happening and that the wheels are in motion. It is a process, a routine – the Secretary of State arrives, meets with the prominent figures, demands that peace must move forward, that concessions must be made and after being lured in and persuaded that improvements and developments are being made, she departs repeating the formulaic phrases of the road map which focus on Israel ceasing settlement expansion and the PA dismantling “terrorist” infrastructure.
Israel performs the tasks necessary to guarantee that the US is reassured. It is a strategy and a policy whereby they can produce rhetoric and pledges which are devoid of substance. They offer seemingly difficult concessions which are too insignificant to notice, enough to prevent direct US intervention or extend privileges that are not theirs to give. After all, no one can monitor whether Israel abides by their obligations except Israel.
America’s actual intentions are evident when listening to Condoleezza Rice’s comments. The Secretary of State emphasized how her trip presented a “pretty fruitful discussion” but stressed that the US would not introduce a white paper of recommendations or points for discussion. Ultimately the US does not have the inclination, resolve or time to delve into the process. Most importantly for Israel, as Ivo Daalder, an advisor to US Presidential candidate Barack Obama admits, “it doesn’t strike me that they [the US] have a lot of leverage”.
It is difficult to believe that if the Bush administration is to use its superpower status to effect constructive and affirmative democratic change in the world before it is replaced by new blood in 2009, it is unlikely that it will take the form of a rushed peace agreement which may transpire at the expense of their close Israeli allies.
As Danielle Pletka, Vice President for the Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute explains, the Middle East peace process is somewhat of a formality – “the last refuge of legacy-seeking secretaries of state”.
Meanwhile, Palestinians cling to the hope that each administration is dependable and has a duty to mediate a just and fair peace agreement to establish a Palestinian state. Their growing despair is epitomized by Saeb Erekat, one of the members of the Palestinian negotiating team, who merely responds when asked about the concessions ostensibly being made by Israel that “we will believe in it when we see it”.
(This article was originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – April 2, 2008)