WASHINGTON — Faced with a deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process and international pressure to demonstrate a commitment to resolving the conflict, the Bush administration is hoping to generate momentum — or at least the appearance of progress — with Israel’s unilateral separation initiative.
“Instead of [the unilateral initiative] being a damage-producing process, the administration is trying to make it into a positive stalemate-breaker,” said Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum.
Three senior administration officials, currently on missions to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, are trying to make sure that any Israeli moves will be coordinated not only with Washington but also with the Palestinian leadership. These U.S. officials —White House advisers Steve Hadley and Elliot Abrams, and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns — are also trying to parlay Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s promised Gaza pullback into a commitment from the Palestinians to launch a counterterrorism campaign. Such a campaign is a prerequisite for resuming peace talks, administration spokesmen have repeatedly said.
The administration is trying “to follow up on some of the ideas that Mr. Sharon has put forward … to get this process moving,” said Secretary of State Colin Powell during an appearance last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He added: “The Israelis are now making some unilateral moves; we don’t want to see a solution that is so unilateral that it doesn’t really provide the kind of stability that we’re looking for. But the Palestinians must move, and we’ve made that clear to them.”
Powell assured the Senate that the administration is “doing a great deal” to push the peace process forward. But Middle East observers are skeptical.
Pundits, congressional aides and foreign diplomats say that the Bush administration neither expects Sharon’s initiative to serve as a viable mechanism to propel the peace process forward, nor intends to invest much effort in pushing for peace before the November elections. Sharon’s talk about evacuating settlements is music to the ears of the United States, which has historically maintained that Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are an impediment to peace, said Judith Kipper, an expert on U.S. Mideast policy with the Council on Foreign Relations. However, Kipper said, “nobody in the administration thinks this is a breakthrough or that it’s going to make much difference, or even that it will be enacted anytime soon.”
Israeli cabinet ministers have recently indicated, both publicly and privately, that it will take at least a year, if not two, before Jewish settlements are evacuated from the Gaza Strip. A government decision on pulling out from Gaza will probably require a referendum, and may even lead to early Israeli elections.
“With the [American] presidential [election] in nine months, an unclear Israeli time frame for action and Palestinian action against terrorism nowhere in sight, no one in Washington expects any significant thing to happen before the end of the year,” said a key staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In the absence of progress, several observers said, the administration will face the challenge of preventing Sharon’s unilateral steps from becoming an impediment to resuming negotiations. Even that, said Spiegel, is a tricky task, because both Sharon and Palestinian militants have an interest in embracing unilateralism. Sharon has signaled that he intends to use a Gaza pullout to avoid making sweeping territorial concessions in the West Bank. Palestinian militants, on the other hand, could present a unilateral Israeli pullout as proof that violence can produce a South Lebanon-like cut-and-run withdrawal in the territories, which in turn would encourage more violence, Spiegel said.