U.S. Uses Measured Approach in Mideast

Middle East

By Ori Nir

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an accomplished classical pianist, was once asked to name her favorite composer. Rather than cite the sentimental Russian romantics — “where it’s all on the sleeve” — she replied: “I love Brahms, because Brahms is actually structured. And he’s passionate without being sentimental.… With Brahms it’s restrained, and there’s a sense of tension that never resolves.”

This kind of restrained structure seems to be the way in which Washington’s new chief diplomat is conducting America’s involvement in the efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“There is quite a bit of irrational exuberance about the administration’s re-engaging in the process. But there sure is no over-exuberance in the administration,” said Scott Lasensky, an expert on America’s policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict at Washington’s U.S. Institute of Peace. “They don’t want to overdo it.”

This week Rice met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, prior to the two leaders’ summit on Tuesday in the Egyptian coastal city of Sharm el-Sheikh. She also announced the appointment of a Middle East “security coordinator,” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Ward, to monitor and assist Israelis and Palestinians on security affairs, and the immediate infusion of $40 million into the Palestinian treasury to help create jobs.

But Rice chose not to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, where the two sides announced a truce aimed at ending the violence that has rocked Israel and the territories since 2001. She declined to appoint a diplomatic envoy, and she did not endorse the idea of an American-sponsored “Marshall Plan” for the West Bank and Gaza, as some Palestinian leaders had hoped she would.

“She is in it but not of it,” said Paul Scham, an Israeli expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations who is now a guest scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts always consume a great deal of any administration’s foreign policy resources, particularly at rare moments of opportunity and good will such as this one. But with this administration things are different. President Bush took office determined not to get bogged down in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts that failed his predecessors. Now, experts say, his Middle East policy is driven not by Arab-Israeli relations but by efforts to stabilize Iraq, and by a grander agenda to transform the region’s autocratic regimes into democracies.

Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are therefore playing a supportive role in helping the administration improve its standing in the Arab world and in Europe, experts say. “They need it to create a certain level of appeasement,” said Meyrav Wurmser, who directs the Middle East Center at the conservative Hudson Institute. “This is an administration that has larger things to worry about in the Middle East now. They are dealing with Iraq, with Iran. They are trying to topple regimes. They are fighting wars. So Israel and the Palestinians will receive the attention they deserve inasmuch as they serve the broader agenda,” she said.

Yet regardless of what’s driving the administration’s policy on Israel and the Palestinians, Wurmser said, the restrained, measured approach seems appropriate. The new president of the P.A. still has to prove that he deserves unqualified American support, she argued.

Israel and its friends in Washington agree. “The administration is playing it just right,” said Jess Hordes, who heads the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League. “This is a very measured, calculated approach that involves ongoing discussions and a lot of work behind the scenes. It’s careful, it’s thoughtful, and it’s smart.”

Rice preferred not to attend the Egypt summit in order to underscore the role that the Arab world should play in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hordes said. And the appointment of a security coordinator rather than a diplomatic envoy underscores the Bush administration’s emphasis on achieving quiet in the short run and helping Sharon successfully implement his Gaza disengagement plan, said Steven Spiegel, a professor of political studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in America’s Mideast policy.

“This is an administration that believes the parties themselves should be driving the process,” said Spiegel, adding that Bush and his foreign policy aides “like to be on the sidelines, to assume a role that is somewhere between cheerleading and playing front and center. It’s a basic approach in the administration’s foreign policy, not only in the Middle East, and it’s very different from the way [former President Bill] Clinton used to do things,” he said.

Sharon grasped this American approach long ago, Israeli diplomatic sources said, and therefore he pushed his unilateral disengagement plan knowing that the administration not only would endorse it, but actively help him advance it, as well. Indeed, what the administration is counting on the most in order to generate progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, experts say, is the disengagement plan. And as long as a unilateral disengagement plan is the name of the game, intense American involvement is redundant, an Israeli diplomat in Washington said.

Not so, some experts counter. A proactive American role is vital for several purposes. First, America should be involved in “disengagement management,” said Spiegel, to ensure that the Palestinians effectively take control of Gaza as Israel withdraws. Second, America has to be present and available for rapid high-level involvement in case things go wrong, and they will, said Scham, whether it is the next big Hamas attack or the next Israeli government crisis. Third, America needs now to steer the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic in a way that will harness the Gaza disengagement plan into a larger peace plan, whether it be the so-called “Road Map” or an accelerated attempt to tackle final status issues, Lasensky said.

The administration might very well intensify its involvement in the process in the coming weeks and months. “This administration knows that the peace process doesn’t work unless someone processes it through,” Egypt’s ambassador in Washington, Nabil Fahmi, told the Forward.

Egypt initiated and hosted this week’s summit and has played an active role in negotiating with Palestinian groups to achieve a cease-fire. Still, Fahmi said, “we all know that there has not been an Israeli-Arab peace agreement that was not eventually concluded with American help.”

“This one,” the Egyptian ambassador added, “will be no exception.”

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