Israel Trying To Reduce Expectations

By Ori Nir

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — With the world cheering Mahmoud Abbas’s victory this week, Israel is seeking America’s assistance in reducing Arab and European expectations of a major peace-process breakthrough.

Since Abbas was elected head of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday, Arab and European governments have been focusing on an accelerated resumption of political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, leading rapidly to discussions of a formula for a two-state solution.

But Jerusalem insists that Israeli-Palestinian re-engagement would initially be limited to security arrangements and to coordinating logistics of the Gaza pullout plan, Israeli officials said. They added that Israel is now trying to ensure that the Bush administration shares this approach.

“We are warning that everyone must calibrate expectations,” Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Daniel Ayalon, told the Forward. “The [Palestinian] elections are an important event, but only the first development in a sequence. It must kick off a process of Palestinian reform, security-services consolidation and action on the ground” to fight terrorism, he said. “The conditions have not been created yet to tackle issues that are way down the road.”

Therefore, said another Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, “there will be an effort by the Americans and us, vis-à-vis the Europeans, to steer them toward this incremental approach and away from fast-tracking” to final-status negotiations. “There is a whole host of things that would have to be done in order to first create a viable entity on the Palestinian side, and then we’ll see how to proceed.”

But the administration’s chief Arab ally, Egypt, is warning that limiting the focus to security and interim arrangements might shut a valuable window of opportunity. “You need to get to a two-state solution in the short term,” said Egypt’s ambassador in Washington, Nabil Fahmi, in an interview with the Forward. “Long-term interim solutions are detrimental to the process.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also said that differing expectations are creating a policy rift between Arabs and Europeans the one hand and Israel and America on the other. He added that Washington is firmly on Israel’s side on the matter.

Prime Minister Sharon phoned Abbas on Tuesday to congratulate him and wish him success. Sharon promised to meet with Abbas in coming weeks. He told reporters, however, that “the main issue that we have to focus on now, after the elections in the Palestinian Authority, is the Palestinian security performance.” President Bush also called Abbas and invited him to visit the White House. The administration is considering a three-way Bush-Sharon-Abbas White House summit late next month or early March, according to diplomatic sources in Washington.

Middle East policymakers in the administration believe there is a risk of losing momentum, in terms of hope and good will, if peace negotiations are not resumed soon, sources close to the administration said. But they are more concerned about ensuring that Israel’s pullout from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank is carried out on time and in an orderly fashion, and that it serves as an on-ramp to reactivating the internationally sponsored “road map” peace plan, administration officials recently told Jewish activists and foreign diplomats in Washington.

Ayalon noted that the road map itself is a phased, incremental process.

“A path has already been carved,” Ayalon said. “There is the road map, there is the disengagement plan preceding it, and all the inputs and the energies should be focused on the success of the disengagement plan.”

According to Fahmi, Egypt’s strategy in its recent intensive engagement with both Israel and the Palestinians is “working on both ending the cycle of violence and on clarifying the endgame.” His government, he said “will intensify its efforts in the weeks to come,” but these efforts can succeed only if both Israelis and Palestinians make not only a commitment to ending violence, but also “a commitment to move toward a peace process.”

The Bush administration, Fahmi said, must express such a commitment, as well. The president, he said, must state that he is determined to achieving a two-state solution by the end of his term, “because this is in the American national interest. Not as a favor to Israelis or Arabs.” In addition, Fahmi said, American Jews must take a stand. “American Jewry has to be the force behind an energized American role for implementing the Bush vision,” he said. “The American Jewish community has to be the beacon behind getting the administration to pursue a two-state solution in the short term, during” Bush’s tenure.

According to Fahmi, Israel and its supporters should not expect an immediate flurry of Arab goodwill gestures unless Israel first makes gestures toward the Palestinians and engages them in peace talks. A resumption of peace negotiations, he said, also would provide the appropriate atmosphere for Egypt to send its ambassador back to Israel. Such an atmosphere, he said, also would contribute to a reduction in of anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish “intolerant expressions” in the Egyptian media.

Fahmi recently said similar things to some 200 Jewish communal leaders during a conference call co-sponsored by the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs.

In his interview with the Forward, Fahmi emphasized that despite his country’s emphasis on expediting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Egypt is also making sincere efforts to bolster security along its border with Gaza.

Egypt has reached an agreement with Israel to deploy some 750 border policemen on Egypt’s side of the border, to prevent weapons smuggling into the area. It is also waiting for Israel to finalize bureaucratic procedures that would allow Egyptian security experts to train a group of Palestinian policemen to regulate the Palestinian side of the border.

Although the United States and Israel will, in coming weeks, attempt to reduce expectations for a quick breakthrough, both governments realize that maintaining a certain sense of exuberance is vital, and they will try to do so. This sense would be key to soliciting financial aid for the Palestinian Authority at the international donor’s conference in early March.

“It is also important for both sides to stay focused on positive momentum rather than on recrimination or victimization,” a senior Washington diplomat said.

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