It is no great secret that Condoleezza Rice isn’t exactly the most successful of diplomats – especially when it comes to trying to solve the torturous Israel/Palestine conflict. Her obvious bias towards Israel means that more often than not she returns empty-handed from her numerous jaunts to the region. Her latest escapade was no exception. The difference this time, however, is that now Condi is being rebuffed not just by the Palestinians, who she can’t seem to convince to recognise the state that is continually stealing their land, but also by the Israelis, who don’t seem to be able to accept any form of compromise.
An Israeli journalist I spoke to was dismissive as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left Jerusalem this morning.
“Diplomacy, dishmomacy,” were his actual words.
This was Ms Rice’s seventh visit to the region over the last few months.
A lot of talk, little to show for it, is the accepted wisdom amongst most Israelis and Palestinians.
Hmmm, not a very promising start is it? Worse still, Israel has refused Condi’s offer to act as a negotiator between it and the Palestinians in what The Daily Telegraph calls a humiliating snub.
Condoleezza Rice received a humiliating snub from Israel yesterday when it refused her offer to act as negotiator between its government and the Palestinian authorities.
The US secretary of state, who was attempting to start final status talks on the creation of a Palestinian state during a visit to Jerusalem, was forced to postpone a press conference planned on Monday evening after tense talks with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister.
Well if Israel won’t trust its best friend to conduct negotiations, it does beg the question: who will it trust? One thing Condoleezza did manage to take away from her visit is a commitment for Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert to meet once a fortnight to discuss security issues which may later lead to discussions about the formation of a Palestinian state. A positive development no doubt, but slim pickings for America which desperately needs a success story in the region to detract attention from its appalling failure in Iraq and to get support for its attack on Iran.
Needless to say, Arab leaders were less than impressed with Condoleezza’s appeal to them to ‘reach out to Israel‘. The idea here is that all the Arab countries recognise Israel and normalise relations with it without Israel being compelled to make any reciprocal moves. If she thought that was going to work then she really must be very naive to assume that Arabs would be so gullible as to fall for that trick. After all, Israel won’t even recognise the new unity government in Palestine. America on the other hand, seems at last to be realising that the unity government is at least a promising compromise and, though it won’t deal directly with it, is offering some support (to Abbas anyway). Perhaps this is the cause of the tension between Condi and Olmert.
All this diplomacy comes, of course, on the eve of an important summit among Arab leaders in Riyadh. The focus of this summit is to revive the peace plan proposed by the Saudis in 2002 in which all the 22 countries in the Arab League would recognise Israel and normalise relations with it in return for Israel withdrawing back to the borders it had prior to the 1967 war. This would make it possible for the formation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. When this plan was first proposed, it was immediately rejected by the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The timing of the original proposal was unfortunate as the Palestinian second intifada was raging and suicide bombings were taking place in Israel. Also this was only a year after 9/11 and at the height of the build up to the Iraq war (Saddam Hussein was one of the Arab League members prepared to recognise Israel). Relations between Saudi Arabia and America had soured somewhat and the plan was seen as an attempt to improve things.
“I wanted to find a way to make clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs don’t reject or despise them,” Abdullah said at the time. “But the Arab people do reject what their leadership is now doing to the Palestinians, which is inhumane and oppressive. And I thought of this as a possible signal to the Israeli people.”
The political climate in the region now is just as tense (if not more so) but the dynamics are different. Iran is seen as the big threat now and powerful Sunni states like Saudi Arabia don’t wish to see Shia Iranian influence spread into Palestine. Israel and Saudi Arabia share this fear of Iran as does the USA, of course. It was Saudi Arabia which managed to broker the deal between Fatah and Hamas to form a unity government. Perhaps this is a good time to revive this five year-old peace plan. The big question of course is what will Israel’s reaction to it be? So far, Ehud Olmert’s response hasn’t been the outright rejection of his predecessor. He has said there are “positive elements” in it worth pursuing. But this is hardly the ringing endorsement needed to carry the plan forward. This is the sort of language we frequently hear from Ehud Olmert. Israel has reservations about withdrawing from all the illegally captured territory which would obviously mean dismantling the illegal settlements (even Shimon Peres, Israel’s deputy prime minister has said that the presence of Jewish settlers inside the West Bank city of Hebron has created an “unbearable situation“). It also objects to Arab East Jerusalem being part of a Palestinian state and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. In other words, the only part of the plan it likes is the recognition of Israel by the Arab states and normalisation of relations. But the problem isn’t going away and appeasing Israel’s territorial desires hasn’t eased the situation at all.
In the absence of any other workable plan, this one might be a reasonable starting point. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud al-Faisal has made it quite clear that this is the only way for Israel to have peace with its neighbours.
“What we have the power to do in the Arab world, we think we have done,” he said. “So now it is up to the other side because if you want peace, it is not enough for one side only to want it. Both sides must want it equally.”
“If Israel refuses, that means it doesn’t want peace and it places everything back into the hands of fate. They will be putting their future not in the hands of the peacemakers but in the hands of the lords of war,” he said.
“Other Arab countries have recognised Israel and what has that achieved?
“The largest Arab country, Egypt, recognised Israel and what was the result? Not one iota of change happened in the attitude of Israel towards peace.”
Well, quite! Getting Israel to accept this plan will be hard and we can expect that it will do everything it can to avoid making any concessions. In that respect, it is unlikely that the summit will produce anything tangible. But hopefully more people are realising that endlessly appeasing Israel hasn’t worked and still isn’t working and maybe it might be time to try something new – actually applying pressure to Israel. That can be done quite easily by cutting the the huge aid packages it gets from the USA (something that seems unlikely at the moment considering the power of AIPAC). There should be more than the one lone voice in the Knesset calling for a boycott of Israel. And with news that Israel is supplying tear gas to Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and after by the way British diplomatic staff have been treated by the regime, that position might gain some support, after all Palestinians have to put up with far worse. Olmert’s position isn’t that strong.
Olmert currently commands what may be the lowest approval rating for any democratic leader in world history: a measly 2%. Mired in corruption scandals and about to face the verdict of a commission of inquiry into the debacle of last summer’s war in Lebanon, Olmert finds his premiership stalled and in a ditch. “He needs an initiative and this could be it,” says one Israeli government official of the Saudi plan.
The former head of Israeli military intelligence, Shlomo Gazit, wrote an open letter to the Saudi regime in which he suggested bypassing Olmert and appealing over his head to the Israeli people directly.
Follow the path taken by Anwar Sadat of Egypt 30 years ago, Gazit urged: come to Jerusalem and call for immediate negotiations. Public opinion will rally and “no government in Israel will be able to reject that kind of initiative,” he wrote.
As Jonathan Freedland says in the article, calling Israel’s bluff over its stated desire for peace might just be a good idea.