This week’s events on the Israel-Palestinian front with President Bush’s visit still leave the prospects for peace open to questioning. Mixed signals from the White House on settlements, a myopic focus on Iran, the endorsement of refugee compensation, and Blair’s plans to join JPMorgan Chase create a muddled backdrop to assess the progress of Bush’s visit. What was really needed to build on last year’s Annapolis conference was a decisive punctuation point to signal the seriousness and resolve of the US, primarily to the Palestinians and Arab world, and I don’t think that has yet happened.
The call upon Israel for settlement freeze made last Friday by the White House was positive news — it demonstrated some rhetorical resolve that they were committed to the process restarted at Annapolis. But statements made this week by President Bush in Israel left him vulnerable to the charge that such resolve would not rise above rhetoric. When pressed on a question by AP’s Anne Gearan, the President seemed to neglect his previous success with the bully pulpit and indicated that all the US could do was provide nudges from the sidelines. The transcript is as follows:
Q Mr. President, are you disappointed that the Israelis and the Palestinians haven’t made more specific progress since Annapolis, and is it maybe time for you to apply some of that direct pressure you referred to earlier?
PRESIDENT BUSH: …Now, implicit in your question is whether or not the President should butt in and actually dictate the end result of the agreement. In my judgment, that would cause there to be a non-lasting agreement. In my judgment, the only way for there to be a vision that means something is for the parties to seriously negotiate that vision. If you’re asking me, am I nudging them forward — well, my trip was a pretty significant nudge, because yesterday they had a meeting — and by the way, the atmosphere in America was, nothing is going to happen, see, that these issues are too big on the ground; therefore, you two can’t get together and come up with any agreements. You just heard the man talk about their desire to deal with core issues, which I guess for the uneducated on the issue, that means dealing with the issues like territory and right of return and Jerusalem. Those are tough issues — the issue of Israeli security. And they’re going to sit down at the table and discuss those issues in seriousness.
Equally troubling the President’s expansion of his visit into a platform to stump against Iran, a move that will not only jeopardize the peace process but — by attempting to unite Israel and Arab states against Iran — inevitably do more damage to the region. Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr detail the follies of such a provocative “containment” strategy that is fraught with difficulty and peril. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to Takeyh and Nasr’s sequencing argument — that a rapprochement with Iran needs to occur prior to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, when in fact both can be pursued in tandem — I think it’s certainly careless and self-defeating to try to resolve a fifty year conflict by simply converting it into another meta-conflict.
Yesterday’s proposal of monetary compensation for Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel, an endorsement of a pivotal plank of the 2003 Geneva Accord, provided some much needed good news by offering some balance for the Palestinians. Of course the vicissitudes of the negotiation process will determine the actual substance and robustness of such balancing efforts, but the symbolic value of such a statement has real meaning that cannot escape notice. Despite the strategic motives, implicit in such a move is the moral culpability of the world — the US and Israel included — in the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967 and the moral obligation to make amends.
Last, news of Blair’s joining JPMorgan Chase cannot be helpful and actually generate confusion and concern as to how dedicated an envoy he will be to the region as he accrues more lucrative advisory positions and possibly some conflicts of interest. The Financial Times editorial explains:
At some level, there is something disturbing about political leaders parlaying their fame into money after retirement. But it is the price we must pay if we want the best and brightest to go into politics rather than becoming bankers in the first place or, in the case of Mr Blair, remaining lawyers.
What is less acceptable is doing both things at the same time. Mr Blair will no doubt be scrupulous in not mixing appeals for peace and compromise in meetings with Gulf leaders with appeals for contracts for JPMorgan. But it is impossible completely to separate his identities as an international envoy and international salesman.
Mr Blair ought to make up his mind whether he wants to remain an active political figure or to become a “trusted adviser” to people with money. The fact that he would probably be good at both is not in dispute. But he must decide on one or the other and not attempt to juggle the two. Otherwise, he will mortgage his reputation to pay off the mortgage on his house.
The White House might have been able to embargo the Blair-JPMorgan announcement knowing it would chip away at the credibility of Bush’s visit. But even leaving aside that gaffe, inherent in the administration’s statements on the peace process is a lack of focus and decisiveness which might compromise the goal of a settlement within a year.