Washington - As Palestinian leaders left this week for Saudi-brokered talks aimed at reconciling the Fatah and Hamas factions, the Bush administration was sending a tough message, making clear that a Palestinian national unity government will not necessarily pave the way to international recognition.
Stepping up its own involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration will sponsor a three-way meeting February 19 between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting, American and Israeli sources said, will discuss prospects for a “political horizon” — meaning an endgame pointing to Palestinian statehood — and other measures that could bolster Abbas’s leadership. It will bring together the two main threads of current American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continuing pressure on Hamas and strengthening Fatah.
The decision to maintain a hard line toward Hamas was reaffirmed last Friday in a meeting here of the so-called Madrid Quartet, which includes the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. However, the meeting was marred by a showdown between Rice and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The Russian envoy argued that the sanctions imposed on the P.A. a year ago, following the Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections, should be lifted. He called the decision to halt international aid to the P.A. “counterproductive” and suggested that Hamas could be pressured in other ways.
Rice, who sat next to Lavrov at the quartet’s joint press conference and, thanks to her fluency in Russian, listened to his statements without earphones, publicly rejected his call to engage with Hamas or with Syria.
The official quartet statement, published at the end of the discussions, seemed to indicate that the United States had the upper hand in the debate over isolating Hamas. The statement called for any Palestinian government to “commit” itself to the three principles enunciated by the quartet last year, including recognizing Israel, renouncing terrorism and accepting previously signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Diplomatic sources pointed out the phrase “to commit” as a strengthening of quartet’s stance. Previous statements called on the Palestinian government to “reflect” the three principles in its platform.
While Israel and the United States viewed last week’s quartet meeting as a success, since it set clear conditions for a possible Palestinian national unity government, Palestinians expressed disappointment.
“I often wonder if the quartet is really a quartet, or a one-tet,” said Afif Safieh, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington, hinting at the dominance of the American perspective in the decisions of the four-headed international body.
For the Palestinians, the quartet’s American-led resolution makes it clear that even if Abbas, the Fatah leader, reaches an agreement on a national unity government with Hamas, he cannot expect much improvement in conditions on the ground. International aid money will still be limited, so long as the new government does not adhere to all three conditions in a way that would satisfy the international community.
Yet while sticking to tough sanctions in order to pressure Hamas, the administration is also trying to come up with measures that will strengthen and boost his popular standing among Palestinians.
The measures, advocated by Rice and her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, are referred to as the “political horizon” — talks to set terms for a future independent Palestinian state and outline the state’s parameters, without actually finalizing the negotiations at this stage. Both Rice and Livni have stressed in recent weeks that they do not propose abandoning President Bush’s 2002 roadmap to Middle East peace as the overarching diplomatic plan. Rather, they say, they are providing the Palestinians with a clearer vision of their future state, which will be created as a result of the roadmap.
While Livni is pushing forward the “political horizon” issue, her boss, Olmert, is taking a more cautious approach. The Israeli leader is loath to see Washington producing final-status ideas at this stage.
Israeli sources said this week that while discussing ways to empower Abbas, the administration should ask itself “at which point do these measures become counter-productive?” Israel’s message to Washington, according to the source, is “to be careful with the expectation-management process,” meaning not to create high expectations that would lead to disappointment at a later stage.
Israelis explain their insistence on adhering to the terms of the roadmap as stemming from the Israeli public’s concern over moving forward with the peace process before terrorist groups are dismantled.
Final-status ideas were discussed recently in talks between Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Sources briefed on these talks, in which Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh also participated, said the two sides looked at the possibility of reaching a framework agreement within six months and a final paper 18 months after that. The sources said that Abbas, the Palestinian leader, had approved this timetable and promised to ask for a renewed mandate from the Palestinian voters if such a deal becomes reality.
Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank considered close to Israeli thinking, said last week that Israel is in its best position ever to open negotiations. “Israel is in an enviable situation,” Satloff said. “All the Arab parties want to talk with Israel now.” Satloff stressed the importance of Saudi Arabia’s playing a constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as on the issues of Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.
His colleague at the institute, David Makovsky, added that the re-emergence of the Saudis as a major power broker in the region is a result of changes in Bush foreign policy. “A year ago, the Sunni regimes were a problem for the administration because of its focus on democratization,” Makovsky said. “Now they are seen as part of the solution.”
Hosting this week’s talks between Fatah and Hamas is seen as another step by the Saudis toward playing a more significant role in the region. Diplomatic sources in Washington confirmed this week that the Saudi peace initiative of 2002 will be re-introduced following the February 19 Abbas-Olmert-Rice meeting. They also said that the initiative may undergo changes that will make it more attractive to the Israelis, probably by rephrasing the paragraphs dealing with the Palestinian refugee problem.
For the United States, the Saudi initiative is viewed as another way of promoting a political horizon both for Israelis, by promising normal relations with Arab states, and for Palestinians, by ensuring Arab backing for Israeli concessions.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman