Middle east policy: stalemate on the move

Despite a new round of Middle East diplomacy, the peace process is still stagnant

To the uninitiated eye, it looks like a really great thing: First, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon fly to the Middle East and get all the parties in position. Then, at a meeting in Riyadh, the Arab League renews its five-year-old peace initiative. And in the end, EU Council President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives and wrests an invitation from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the Arab heads of state and government to attend a peace conference in Jerusalem.

But in reality, the movement is at a standstill: what has been declared in the German media as Merkel’s "aubenpolitische Triumph" is just another move in a kind of diplomatic soccer game, in which the participants kick the ball from one half to the other, pretending to be enthusiastic and meanwhile waiting to see how the political crises in Israel and the Palestinian Autonomous Territories as well as the presidential election campaign in the United States develop. It is also the cause of the only development that could bring movement to the stalemate: No sooner had Merkel left than Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, arrived in the region and made it clear to those involved that a different tone would prevail on the playing field should the Democrats be the referee after the next elections.

Working as a journalist in the Middle East is something like this: You turn on your computer in the morning, read the news from right to left or the other way around, call the usual suspects and then, over a pack of cigarettes and a pot of coffee, look into the glass ball, hoping that it will tell you more or less exactly what is going on at the moment and what it means for the future.

At the moment, for example, it shows U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon traveling through the Middle East, giving press conferences (two questions per politician) in which they talk about "windows of opportunity," renewing old demands and laughing optimistically, before the next scene shows them Arab leaders meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh for the Arab League summit, offering Israel once again total peace in exchange for agreement to the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Next, EU Council President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, before holding a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (again, two questions per politician), during which the prime minister invites the Arab heads of state and government to a peace summit (gladly also in Jerusalem, but only after the preliminary work has been done) and Merkel laughs happily. The last to land in Israel is the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (Democrats), who also visits the Palestinian territories before flying on to Lebanon and Syria, shaking hands everywhere and telling the White House (Republicans) with her smile that the US government’s criticism of her trip is completely bouncing off her. The problem is that the crystal ball freezes every time you try to switch to future mode.

"It’s no wonder, either; there can’t be anything there at all," explains colleague Ariel Pines of the second Israeli TV channel, who was asked for advice, and sums up:

It all just looks like something is moving. In truth, there is absolute standstill. Die politischen Krisen in Israel und der Palastinensischen Autonomiebehorde, gibt es ja immer noch und auberdem blockiert Rice die Einbindung Syriens in den Prozess. Apart from the fact that negotiations could possibly end in nothing, there is a danger that this could have pushed Syria further in the direction of Iran. And neither here nor in the Arab states anyone has an interest in this. That there is still activity is because Rice is prering – she wants to be president. The others are playing along because they can score a few points at home and look for alternatives in the meantime without getting on the wrong side of the US government.

High expectations of Merkel

Deshalb folgt jeder diplomatische Schritt zur Zeit einem gewissen Schema: Jeder ist super-vorsichtig, unglaublich nett und wahnsinnig optimistisch. To that end, all parties have expanded their vocabulary to include word constructs such as "window of opportunity," "hand for peace," and "a reliable partner," which they are happy to use in numbers in scenes such as this: On Sunday evening, EU Council President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will appear before the media together with Israel’s head of government Ehud Olmert. She looks satisfied, he looks relaxed, because not much can happen: only two questions are planned for each politician; this rules out the possibility of any lengthy follow-up questions, possibly even critical ones. "He who says nothing can do nothing wrong," says a German journalist.

But Olmert is not only the head of government, he is also a master of kind words, and so he gives Merkel a very nice gift: He invites the moderate Arab leaders, "and especially the King of Saudi Arabia," to Jerusalem to continue the dialogue in the Arab-Israeli conflict, he says. He had saved this especially for the visit of the German Chancellor, who has always been a reliable partner of Israel. Merkel looks even more satisfied. Shortly thereafter, Spiegel Online will award her an "aubenpolitische Triumph", other media will find similar words. She didn’t need it – "but it doesn’t hurt either," she says. The fact that the summit proposal is only remotely related to her visit, the success of which she herself described as not immediately apparent during the press conference, can be lived with: "Above all, it strengthens the position of the European Union in the Middle East and shows how much importance is attached to Europe by the parties to the conflict in the region."

However, Olmert’s invitation to the summit was not primarily intended to achieve a result: According to the largely unanimous view of Arab and Israeli media, the Israeli prime minister wanted to return the ball to the Arab half of the world after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had dumped it on him. In addition, Olmert had wanted to get rid of foreign prere.

Without Olmert’s intervention, Merkel’s visit would probably have been less than glamorous. Merkel had to come because she was to receive an honorary doctorate, and now, of all times, when she is also President of the EU Council and Rice and Ban have just been there and the Arab League has renewed its peace initiative – somehow she had to react to this.

Ariel Pines

The ceremony at the Hebrew University would have been the only glorious moment of Merkel’s trip to the Middle East, especially since the visit to the Palestinian territories was a balancing act: the Palestinian government wanted Merkel to meet with religious representatives and relatives of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, and to visit the wall that Israel is currently building in East Jerusalem. The German delegation, however, saw this as an attempt to force the EU Council President into a situation where she might have faced Hamas representatives. The European Union continues to reject contacts with the radical Islamic organization, the "Change and Reform" electoral list, which won an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections early last year ("When Israel Stops the Occupation, We Will Stop Resistance Too").

Either way, expectations of Merkel were high: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and the Arab world expected her, who is more likely to side with Israel, to exert a moderating influence on the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and persuade him to renounce his demand for a waiver of the right of return for the Palestinian refugees and their descendants; Israel, on the other hand, hoped that the German chancellor, whose aubenminister maintains excellent contacts in the Arab world, could bring about a concession there: She should agree to compensation payments to the Palestinian refugees in return for their full integration into their countries of residence.

Head of government on call

But how this was to be achieved was a mystery even to professional optimists: "Merkel is an important partner for Israel, but she needs help that only Olmert can give her," commented the newspaper Jedioth Ahronoth: "Whether he is currently in a position to do so, however, is questionable."

For Olmert is currently burning in all corners: First of all, the composition of his coalition, which includes populist Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, leaves little room for maneuver, especially since Olmert’s approval ratings are beyond the limit of detection. In addition, a number of his cabinet members are being investigated, and he himself must expect to be incriminated in the partial report of the committee of inquiry on the Lebanon war, which is still expected in April – and then to have to deal with even fiercer demands for his resignation than those already being addressed to him day after day.

"Olmert’s hands are currently tied by the many scandals; even if he wanted to – he couldn’t," commented the state broadcaster Kol Jisrael last week, "Olmert is a head of government on call, and he won’t do anything that could possibly hasten his departure."

Behind the scenes, the settlers and their supporters, who also carry considerable weight in parliament, have already heard their hour strike once again: During Rice and Ban’s visit, of all times, hundreds of right-wing Israelis marched toward the ruins of the former settlement of Khomesh in the northern West Bank, hoping that they would be allowed to stay there. The eviction of the settlement, along with all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and three others in the northern West Bank, has failed to achieve its goal, the message to the Israeli public goes; negotiations are futile and only a relaunch of the settlement policy still makes sense. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon officially renounced this years ago in accordance with the "Road Map to Peace" of the Middle East Quartet of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia; however, it continues to tolerate more than 150 eavesdropping posts built without permits.

Olmert seems to have adopted the strategy of exchanging as much willingness to act as possible for as little action as possible, and in doing so he can consider himself in good company with the Arab world: "We have just set up a new government after long negotiations," says an official in President Abbas’ Fatah faction, "if we were to make concessions now, the unity government would be in danger again."Hamas categorically rejects any concession on this ie. And the memories of the bloody clashes between Fatah and Hamas supporters in Gaza, which have claimed the lives of more than 150 people in recent months, are still fresh: "We are afraid that it could start all over again."

Balancing act in the Arab world

A concern that also drives the policies of many Arab League members: they want close ties to the West, they want to play a role in the post-Iraq region, but they do not want a permanent trouble spot on their own doorstep that could potentially cause instability in Jordan, where Palestinians now account for an estimated 70 percent of the population, and in Egypt, where the radical Islamic Muslim Brotherhood is strong. And above all, they do not want to push Syria further toward Iran (Forward-looking alliance between Shiite Iran and Sunni Syria?): "It is important that we involve the country in the process," says Ahmed Ben Hali, deputy secretary-general of the Arab League, "because the key to peace in the Middle East is not only the resolution of the Palestinian ie, but also a dialogue with Syria."

In this way, he openly contradicts the U.S. Secretary of State, who repeatedly demands that Israel keep its hands off Syria because the state supports terror.

It is a fact that only the dialogue with Syria will change the situation. The country must be integrated into the international community in order to ensure lasting security and stability throughout the Middle East.

Ben Hali

But this is not Rice’s immediate priority at the moment: she wants to win the next presidential elections, and for that she needs to show success in the Middle East, or at least prevent the situation from worsening. For the debacle in Iraq hangs like a sword of Damocles over the administration of George W Bush. Observers blame the war there for the Democratic victory in last November’s congressional elections. And in the case of Syria, you never know what will happen in the event of a dialogue with Israel.

"It is important for us to make progress as soon as possible," said a member of the American delegation during Rice’s visit, "the Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to a positive development in the entire Middle East."He did not confirm that this would also help Rice’s presidential ambitions, but he did not deny it either. "We believe that with the unity government a window of opportunity has opened; there are now enough people in the Palestinian government to talk to – that’s the message we want to convey to the Israeli side."

Necessity of the Refused Dialogue with Syria

Looking out of this "window of opportunity," however, is as unproductive as consulting the crystal ball – the positions are the same as they were one, two or three years ago: The Arab world demands Israel’s withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines and the right of return for the Palestinian refugees and their descendants; Israel is only partially willing to do so. What is new, meanwhile, is the U.S. refusal to engage Syria in the process – though that could soon become history.

The new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, made it clear shortly after Merkel’s trip to the Middle East how rough the wind has become in Washington after the congressional elections: Together with other members of the House of Representatives, she flew to the Middle East, stopped in Syria on Wednesday and thus caused angry protests from the White House, which called the visit "counterproductive" and "irresponsible. Pelosi, however, reacted calmly, spoke of the need for dialogue and pointed out that the day before the Democratic delegation, three Republican representatives had traveled to the Middle East, including Syria.

The anger in the White House was further fuelled by the fact that Pelosi had previously accepted a message from the Israeli prime minister to Syrian President Bashar al Assad inviting him to talks – a dialogue with the neighboring country is a priority from Israel’s point of view (love pit from Damascus), because Olmert considers it easier and more promising than negotiations on the future of the Palestinian territories, and he hopes to avoid a new confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is supported by Syria.

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