WASHINGTON — Stymied by the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic deadlock and seemingly unwilling to risk its shrinking political capital, the Bush administration issued a round of contradictory, top-level messages this week that left observers convinced it was merely trying to buy time while appearing engaged.
The apparent confusion reached its height on Monday, when President Bush told a group of visiting rabbis at the White House that he would judge Palestinian leaders by the “simple formula” of their ability to fight terrorism and that he supported Israel’s so-called separation fence, although he questioned part of its route.
At nearly the same time, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his chief Middle East policy aide were telling an Arab-American audience in Michigan that Israel’s continuing settlement activity was threatening the peace process and “the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy.”
The administration injected itself deeply into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy last spring with the publication of a so-called road map to peace. The plan, calling for a new Palestinian leadership, a halt to terrorism and Israeli concessions on settlements, collapsed in a wave of violence in August.
The current finger-pointing indicates that the administration has now decided to withdraw from the process, said Moshe Maoz, a ranking Hebrew University expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations who is now a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. The administration treats Israeli-Palestinian negotiations like the weather, Maoz said. “They complain but do nothing about it.”
In an effort at damage control, Maoz said, the White House has taken to blaming the impasse on the Israelis or the Palestinians, depending on the crowd.
In his meeting with the rabbis, Bush spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the context of the global war on terrorism. He said that the condition for future presidential involvement in the process is a Palestinian leader who would “confront terrorism,” according to several people who attended. While arguing that force was the only option when confronting terrorism, Bush invoked an old Texas saying, insisting that some things “can’t be done with therapy.”
The meeting with the 16 rabbis was timed to usher in Rosh Hashana and focused largely on spiritual discussions, participants said. The delegation was heavily weighted with Orthodox clerics and political conservatives. Sources said the imbalance was due to a communications glitch between the White House and the Reform movement.
Participants in the meeting said that the rabbis generally avoided any confrontation with the president over policy disagreements involving Israel or other topics. The amicable tone of the meeting was set when a Navy chaplain, Commander Irving Elson, back from six months in Iraq, opened the gathering with a prayer and praised Bush for his handling of the war there. “I told him we were doing the right thing and urged him to stay the course,” Elson told the Forward.
Two participants congratulated Bush for pushing his so-called faith-based initiative, a highly contentious topic within the Jewish community. Two others urged the president to pardon convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Bush said he would not work with the incoming Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, until Qurei showed he was able to confront terrorism. And he harshly criticized Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, who he said had played a negative role in the war on terrorism. In contrast, Bush boasted about his strong ties to Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon. The friendship is so solid, Bush said, that if he has a problem with Israeli policy, he does not hesitate to pick up the phone and personally voice his displeasure to Sharon.
While Bush was touting his support for Sharon and Israel, Powell was in Dearborn, Michigan, slammed Israel’s settlement policy at a gathering of the U.S.-Arab Economic Forum. In a speech that included criticisms of both sides, the secretary of state declared that “settlement activity must end” and Israel’s “unauthorized outposts must be dismantled.” He also urged Israel to take actions to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the West Bank, “focusing especially on removing checkpoints and freeing up the movement of goods and people.”
An even harsher view of settlements was voiced by Powell’s Middle East deputy, William Burns, assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, speaking shortly afterward. “As Israeli settlements expand and their populations increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how the two peoples will be separated into two states,” Burns told the group. “The reality of demographics could threaten the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy.”
The assistant secretary added: “For friends of Israel, the conclusion is hard to escape; settlement activity must stop because it ultimately undermines Israeli as well as Palestinian interests.”
Burns linked his objections to settlements to American criticisms of Israel’s construction of a security fence. As currently envisioned, Burns said, the fence “isolates Palestinians from each other, prejudges negotiations and, like settlement activity, takes us further from the two-state goal.”
By pointing fingers at each group, several observers said, the administration was essentially shifting blame for the collapse of its road map peace plan.
“This enables the administration to not take any proactive action, while reminding the Israelis that if the Palestinians ever get their action together, they are going to come in hard on the Israelis,” said Steven Spiegel, a political scientist at University of California, Los Angeles, and an adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, which favors active American involvement in Middle East diplomacy. “Whether they will do that before an election or not is anyone’s estimation.”
Another expert, David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs who is now vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Bush “has very meaningful goals for a Middle East peace settlement” but that he “has no plan for getting from here to there that he’s prepared to stick to with any consistency.”
Despite its criticisms of Jerusalem, the administration has delayed its announcement of whether and how much it would reduce loan guarantees to Israel as a sanction for settlement activity. The State Department told Congress Tuesday that it needed more time to determine the extent of Israel’s construction in the territories. According to the law, the administration deducts from the amount of loans it guarantees for Israel on a dollar-to-dollar basis, equal to the amount of money Jerusalem invests in the settlements.
Sources familiar with the process said that there are apparently two main reasons for the delay. One is an uncertainty about the amount of money Israel’s government disbursed for settlement activity last year — official Israeli sources say the figure falls between $200 million and $250 million, while Israeli press reports cite a figure that is more than twice as high.
Another reason for the delay is the uncertainty surrounding the delineation of the West Bank fence and whether sanctions will be imposed on that front as well. Israel has not given the administration a clear account of its plans regarding the fence, sources said, and the administration decided to halt its report to Congress pending Israeli clarifications. Observers expect that the offset will exceed $250 million.