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Engaging the US president

After meeting this past week with individuals and institutions directly involved in the shaping of US policy vis- -vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I came away with an assessment of across-the-board pessimism.

This is perhaps not new regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. What is new is that in the past, most of these individuals and institutions said they were pessimistic in the short term, but optimistic in the long term. This time that longer-term optimism has disappeared. There are no great hopes that the disengagement will lead to a renewed peace process. There is no belief that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has any intention of beginning to negotiate with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. There are no real hopes that Abbas will successfully take control of the Palestinian territories.

There is the belief that despite President George W. Bush's speeches, the Israeli government will continue to build settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem; that soon after the disengagement Israel will enter into the election season, which will take place around the same time as mid-term elections in the US; that Abbas may not succeed in overcoming the internal struggles that he is facing and there will be increasing chaos on the Palestine side, and that Hamas will continue to grow in strength and popularity.

The overriding sense of pessimism emerges from the assessment that the so-called "window of opportunity" that opened as a result of the Israeli disengagement is rapidly closing, even prior to the implementation of the disengagement. Most analysts do not see any peace process on the horizon.

Most people have rather cynical views on both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders. I was repeatedly asked if Abbas's weakness was a result of a lack of capability or a lack of political will; if the great drama surrounding the removal of the settlers is real, or if it is being embellished by Sharon as a means of proving that the trauma is so great that it would be unthinkable to imagine a further disengagement or withdrawal in the West Bank.

I ALSO heard from most people that we should not expect any more engagement from Bush or from his administration. The policy of containment and control is the main thread of US policy. The main focus for the Bush administration is Iraq and not Israel/Palestine, which is perceived as being too sensitive and too explosive domestically to be confronted with great involvement.

Many people believed, however, that the view regarding the domestic sensitivity of the Israel/Palestine issue is highly inflated. Many people mentioned recent polls in the US that indicate a true desire of the American people to see a fair peace deal emerge that would lead to the implementation of the Bush vision of two states for two peoples.

The American people seem to want what is perceived there as "the American way" a deal that would stand by Israel and guarantee its long-term survival, but would also provide Palestinians with justice and freedom. One director of a Washington think-tank described this as being "pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian."

Meeting with people in the halls of Congress to exchange views, the first questions I was asked were: What does AIPAC have to say about that? Have you spoken to AIPAC? There is little doubt that AIPAC has successfully instilled a strong sense on the Hill that anything that concerns the US-Israel relationship must be checked with them first.

It is quite remarkable how lacking in independence the US Congress is with regard to US policy on Israel. It is equally remarkable that most of the official Jewish establishment organizations in the US lack any vision regarding how best to help Israel achieve peace and stability. The status quo of only backing whatever the Israeli government does, while at the same time placing severe limitations on the ability of the US administration to assist the Palestinians, is not really acting in the best interests of Israel.

US PUBLIC opinion polls have shown that a majority of American Jews have adopted the Bush vision. A majority of US Jews are interested in Israel's long-term survival, which they link to its ability to achieve peace, and many of them would like the Bush administration to be more engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making.

Bush has made significant promises in statements and in writing to the Israeli government regarding future borders, Jerusalem and the refugee issue. He also made some quite significant promises to Abbas regarding the need for agreement between the parties on all of the promises made to Israel. There is a need for a clarification of the contradictions among these promises, as well as a need for a clearer elaboration of the Bush parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace. These parameters, based on his stated vision, seem to indicate a call for the creation of an independent, free and sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

It seems clear that there is opposition to the continuation of Israeli settlement construction, including in and around Jerusalem. It is clear that there must be territorial contiguity within the Palestinian territories and a meaningful link between the West Bank and Gaza, and that Palestinian citizens must enjoy democracy and freedom. But there are many other issues that are still very unclear.

What is the timeline for the Bush parameters? How can there be a solution for the Palestinian refugees? What should happen in Jerusalem? Can Jerusalem be the shared capital of the two states? What guarantees can be provided to both sides?

Bush has opened a road map to peace. We need more directions. The American people, including American Jews, should welcome more engagement from the US president. The US has proven its concern for the welfare of the State of Israel. The Bush parameters are likely to be very pro-Israeli while also being very pro-Palestinian. That is what is required now.

The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research & Information.

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