WASHINGTON — The Bush administration’s Middle East diplomacy, shattered by the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and sideswiped by the president’s own troubles, has been reduced in recent days to jawboning a peace agreement between the feuding leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen.
Administration officials view Abu Mazen, whose appointment as Palestinian prime minister last spring was the key to President Bush’s road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace, as the best candidate to fight Palestinian terrorism and negotiate with Israel. But Abu Mazen is locked in a fight for his own political survival. Arafat is said to view him with undisguised loathing and has engineered a multipronged effort to undermine and isolate him. Abu Mazen, lacking a political base of his own, is being backed steadily into a corner.
American diplomats, led by presidential envoy John Wolf, an assistant secretary of state, are deeply engaged in an effort to protect Abu Mazen from political oblivion. “They are trying to dissuade Arafat from engineering a vote of nonconfidence in the Palestinian legislative council, which would vote Abu Mazen out of office,” said Edward Abington, a former American consul general in East Jerusalem who now lobbies for the P.A. in Washington. “The administration is putting a lot of pressure” on Arafat and his supporters, Abington said. Wolf and his aides are meeting directly with individual members of the legislative council to lobby against the no-confidence measure. American officials are not talking directly to Arafat, noted State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
The intra-Palestinian diplomatic effort appears to be a reprise of the work American officials invested in securing Abu Mazen’s appointment five months ago, illustrating how far America’s peace-brokering between Israelis and Palestinians has been set back, experts said.
Administration officials still intend to kick-start negotiations between the parties as early as possible but admit in private conversations that they have “run out of viable options” for an immediate push to implement the road map. America’s previous strategy, based on incremental measures by both sides to create calm and entice the parties to start implementing the peace plan, have been slowed by mutual intransigence and then stopped dead by violence, administration officials said. “Now there is little in their tool-box that they can realistically use to put this back on track,” said one Middle East policy expert who has spoken with administration officials in recent days.
“They genuinely don’t know what to do,” said Judith Kipper, who directs the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The president is dead-serious” in wanting to advance the road map, Kipper said, “but to give it his full attention and put his foot on the necks of both parties to get them to make peace — he’s not in a position to do it when he’s so busy with Iraq and Afghanistan.” Kipper added that administration officials don’t feel enough will be coming from both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to pursue a peace agreement, “so you sometimes have to simply pause and reassess.”
Defending Abu Mazen from political demise is described by Washington insiders as minimal maintenance. “They are protecting the only asset they have in this on the Palestinian side,” said one former administration official. “If Abu Mazen goes, who do we do business with?” Israel has made it clear that it will not negotiate with any Palestinian government that is effectively controlled by Arafat.
The administration believes that Abu Mazen is the only Palestinian leader who can currently head a government that is at least partially independent of Arafat. It also strongly backs him in his struggle with Arafat: consolidating control over the Palestinian security services under the newly reformed government, which he heads, and moving away from Arafat’s “old regime.”
But even attempts to obtain peace within the P.A. are posing an unexpectedly tough challenge to American diplomacy. Arafat remains popular among Palestinians and seems to gain popularity as the Israeli-Palestinian relations deteriorate. Abu Mazen himself is not happy with American efforts on his behalf, which he views as “very heavy-handed” according to Abington, because such efforts make him “seem as an Israeli-American candidate.”
Moreover, Abu Mazen can’t show any real achievement on the ground, now that Israel has frozen its movement on the road map. As such, he lacks credibility among Palestinians, Abington said.
On the Israeli side, there is little eagerness to engage with the road map, as long as Abu Mazen’s government does not confront terrorists. Last Sunday, Israel’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, announced the opening of a new chapter for Israel in its relationship with the Palestinians. Briefing government ministers at the Cabinet’s weekly session, Mofaz said that the August 19 bus bombing in Jerusalem, which left 21 Israelis dead, had “broken the track that was supposed to give the diplomatic process a chance.” In response, Mofaz said, Israel’s security apparatus has embarked on “an all-out war against Hamas and other terrorist elements, including continuous strikes at the organization’s leaders,” according to an official government communiqué. Since the Jerusalem suicide bombing, Israel has carried out six assassination attacks on suspected Hamas activists. In all, it has killed 11 Hamas members since August 18, and four bystanders. Hamas has vowed to retaliate.
Mofaz also renewed his call this week to expel Arafat. He has advocated expelling the Palestinian leader intermittently since the Palestinian intifada started three years ago, first in his position as military chief of staff and then as defense minister.
Washington opposes expelling Arafat. The State Department’s Boucher, addressing Mofaz’s latest declaration, told reporters on Tuesday that although the administration views Arafat as “a part of the problem,” its opposition to expelling him has not changed. Boucher added that Israel informed Washington that it has no plans to expel the veteran 74-year-old Palestinian leader.
Arafat, attempting to reassert his role and reclaim some international legitimacy, last week called on the militant Palestinian factions to reinstate the cease-fire and promised to order security services under his command to fight terrorists. But senior members of Hamas rejected his statements.
“At the moment, this seems pretty much stuck,” Kipper of the Middle East Forum said of the American peacemaking efforts. “Once again, we have to rely on the Israeli and Palestinian people to tell their leaders that enough is enough.”
A public-opinion poll taken in Israel last week by the Hanoch Smith polling company, published by the economics daily Globes, found 52% of Israelis in favor of giving a Palestinian cease-fire a second chance, while 42% were opposed. A small minority, 24%, said Israel’s war on terrorism was either very or quite successful, and a three-quarters majority (75%) said it was not very successful or plain unsuccessful. Sixty percent said that Palestinian terrorism cannot be eliminated solely by military means.