Washington - As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presses Israelis and Palestinians to meet a new set of policy benchmarks, the White House is reassuring Jewish groups and conservatives that the president has no plans to pressure Jerusalem.
Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams told a group of Jewish communal leaders last week that the president would ensure that the process does not lead to Israel being pushed into an agreement with which it is uncomfortable.
Also last week, at a regular gathering of Jewish Republicans, sources said, Abrams described President Bush as an “emergency brake” who would prevent Israel from being pressed into a deal; during the breakfast gathering, the White House official also said that a lot of what is done during Rice’s frequent trips to the region is “just process” — steps needed in order to keep the Europeans and moderate Arab countries “on the team” and to make sure they feel that the United States is promoting peace in the Middle East.
According to one of the participants in the meeting of Jewish Republicans, Abrams said that he does not believe that the United States can make much progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The United States could only see success, Abrams added, on limited issues relating to freedom of movement for Palestinians in the territories and efforts to strengthen the presidential guard of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Abrams offered his skeptical view of the prospects for progress as the State Department was launching its latest effort to push the process forward. In general, according to Washington insiders, Rice and her Middle East team are pushing an increasingly aggressive agenda on the Israeli-Palestinian front, while the White House policy team, led by Abrams, is pulling back, viewing any major breakthrough as unlikely.
[In response to the initial version of this article, an NSC spokesperson issued a statement on behalf of Abrams stating that the White House supported Rice’s efforts.
“Advancing toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians and toward the President’s vision of two states living side by side in peace and security is not only Secretary Rice’s goal, it is a key goal of the President’s,” the NSC statement said. “It is inaccurate to suggest that the White House and State Department are at odds on this issue, for the entire Administration — including Mr Abrams — is committed to pursuing it and the rest of the President’s agenda. Moreover, Mr. Abrams’ reference an ‘emergency brake’ was in reply to a question about whether European and Arab pressure could put Israel in a corner, and was intended to make clear that this would not happen because ultimately the United States provides an emergency brake. It had nothing to do with efforts by the United States to push the process forward, under Secretary Rice’s direction.”]
Last week, American diplomats presented the Israelis and Palestinians with a document specifying benchmarks that both sides are required to fulfill in the upcoming months.
Most demands of Israel have to do with issues of mobility and access — lifting roadblocks, allowing truck convoys from Gaza to the West Bank and opening the Karni crossing, Gaza’s main import and export entrance point. The Palestinians, according to the document, are required to deploy forces in order to stop the firing of rockets at Israeli towns and to curb violence within the territories.
The presentation of the benchmarks is seen as a major move by the United States and as another sign of Rice’s determination to push the stalled peace process forward.
The Palestinian reaction to the document was mixed, with Hamas turning it down and Fatah seeing the paper as a possible platform for negotiations. Jerusalem, according to Israeli sources, is still studying the proposal and will provide its formal answer to American diplomats on the ground. Israeli sources stressed, however, that they view the program as positive, mainly since it includes a demand that the Palestinian Authority confront the rocket-launching issue.
Rice’s dramatic attempt to make both sides live up to their commitments, however, now appears undermined by political developments on the ground.
The State Department announced Monday that Rice is postponing her planned visit to the region, due to the political uncertainty in Israel. “There’s obviously a lot of politics in Israel that they’re working through at this point,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Rice, however, made clear that she intends to keep on working with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on promoting the peace process. “We’re going to continue to work toward the two-state solution because one thing that we know is that the Israeli people overwhelmingly want to get to a place where they have a neighbor who can contribute to their security,” Rice said in an interview to the Al-Arabiya TV network.
The benchmarks carry even more urgency in light of a new report released this week by the World Bank. The report stresses the economic difficulties faced by the Palestinians because of a lack of free movement and access, issues that Rice has frequently raised in Israel and that are addressed in the benchmarks she established.
The World Bank report described in great detail the restrictions Israel imposed on the Palestinians regarding use of roads, access to land and freedom of movement. These restrictions are a result of building the separation barrier, forbidding Palestinians from entering roads used by Jewish settlers and closing areas adjacent to settlements.
“As long as large areas of the West Bank remain inaccessible for economic purposes… and unpredictable movement remains the norm for the vast majority of Palestinians, sustainable economic recovery will remain elusive,” the report concluded.
Rice’s renewed drive to promote an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is seen in Washington not only as a desire to calm America’s allies in Europe and the Middle East but also as part of the new thinking within the State Department, which views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an obstacle that deters Arab countries from joining the United States in its attempts to stabilize Iraq.
This view was recently reinforced by Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who in a conversation with nationally syndicated columnist Robert Novak accused Abrams of preventing the administration from having a “coherent Middle East policy” which would engage Iran and Syria in an attempt to stabilize Iraq. “I do know that there are a number of Israelis who would like to engage Syria,” Hagel told Novak. “They have said that Elliott Abrams keeps pushing them back.”
The columnist also said Hagel quoted foreign ministers, ambassadors and former Americans officials as saying they believe Abrams “is making policy in the Middle East.”
Israel, according to sources close to decision-makers in Jerusalem, also sees Abrams as the leading policy figure in the administration on Middle East issues, a status that has led Olmert to keep an open channel of communications with Bush’s senior adviser.
According to the sources, Abrams is also a leading voice in trying to convince American Jews to be more supportive of the war in Iraq.
At the same time, Abrams is said to hold a relatively moderate view when it comes to dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat. In a recent White House meeting with leaders of a major Jewish group, Abrams outlined what he described as the disadvantages of taking military action against Iran. Participants quoted Abrams as saying that accepting a nuclear Iran or launching a military attack against the Islamic country would both be “terrible options,” and that international diplomatic and economic pressure is the only way to solve the problem.
Israeli officials also recalled the tough stand Abrams took against Israel’s plans to build in the E1 corridor near Jerusalem, an area seen as vital for the territorial contiguity of any future Palestinian state.
“I never sensed that he is committed to a ‘greater Israel’ idea,” said an official in a Jewish organization who regularly meets with Abrams. “He is simply very skeptical when it comes to the Palestinians.”
Like the Israelis, officials at Jewish organizations see Abrams as the main contact point in the administration when it comes to Middle East affairs. “He knows all the Washington representatives of the Jewish groups and has good relations with them,” said one Jewish organizational official.
Another Jewish official, who described Abrams as a “pretty approachable guy,” said that it is regular practice for the administration to “send the [National Security Council] when they want to be nice to the Jewish community and send the State Department when they want to please the world.”
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said that Abrams’ availability to Jewish representatives depends on their views of the administration. “Once we [the ZOA] started criticizing Bush’s policy in the Middle East, he stopped taking my calls,” Klein said. “Before he joined this administration, he agreed with me about Oslo and about Arafat.”
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