Friday, March 30, 2007

Looking Toward Resolving Israel-Palestine

If Capitol Hill were a college campus, the current congressional hiatus would be called spring break. Regardless, like college students throughout the U.S. at this time, many Members are traveling: some returning to the districts and states to meet with and listen to constituents, others going overseas on official fact-finding trips (some of which are more accurately labeled boondoggles or junkets).

Undoubtedly, a number of those traveling abroad will end up in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and perhaps Kuwait (the latter being the region’s transit point for getting into Iraq), with fewer going to Afghanistan. Don’t look for “codels” (congressional delegations) visiting Palestinian leaders or going to long-time allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or other countries and emirates on the Arabian peninsula.

Not after the just-completed two-day Arab League summit in Riyadh where the U.S. was roundly criticized by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for what the king termed the “illegal foreign occupation” of Iraq.

Media accounts portrayed Washington as surprised by the king’s characterization, with administration spokespersons noting that the multinational force in Iraq has a mandate from the UN and is in Iraq at the “request” of the Iraqi government. While true, these circumstances are “after the fact” of the original invasion and occupation of Iraq which were done without UN authorization and for reasons that many countries believe the Bush administration knew or should have known were not true – as post-invasion events proved.

That the Bush administration expressed surprise is itself a surprise, given that the White House has been encouraging the Saudis to become more open in their diplomacy. Apparently, Bush and his advisors thought the king would dutifully press Washington’s viewpoint, forgetting Lord Acton’s admonition that nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

In fact, the king’s remarks were but the latest in a series of cautionary signals the White House failed to note. For example, with the U.S. unwilling or unable to dampen factional fighting in the Gaza strip between supporters of Palestinian President Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh, the Saudis brokered not only a general cessation in the fighting but pushed both leaders to form a “unity government.” The reaction from Washington and Tel Aviv was completely negative as both regard Hamas as a terror organization. In fact, Washington and Tel Aviv toughened already punitive sanctions against Palestinians in an effort to force the resignation or dismissal of the Hamas-dominated government elected by Palestinians in 2006. This action was exactly contrary to Saudi Arabia’s call for the U.S. and Israel to reduce if not remove all sanctions.

Other substantive divisions have also become public. Washington has avoided contacts with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad while King Abdullah invited the Iranian to visit Saudi Arabia. The king also has been open to discussions with another “terror” organization, Hezbollah, about the future role of the organization in Lebanese politics and Lebanon’s relations with Israel.

Saudi displeasure even spilled into ceremonial events. The Bush administration’s blatant effort to overturn Hamas’ election success through increased sanctions undoubtedly played into King Abdullah’s refusal to attend a formal White House state dinner in his honor planned for mid-April. Administration spokespersons denied such an event was scheduled – probably true technically as the king apparently was thoughtful enough to decline before the date was entered into the president’s calendar of events.

While the continuing violence in Iraq was a significant topic of the March summit, the main business before the League was to reassert the organization’s united backing of a five year old Saudi-devised formula to move toward settlement of the Israeli-Palestine standoff. That plan offered Israel unconditional recognition by all 22 members of the Arab League in exchange for Israel returning to its pre-1967 war borders, accepting the designation of East Jerusalem as the capitol of the Palestinian state, and recognizing the “right of return” of Palestinians to homes inside Israel proper (March 29, 2007 The Guardian (UK) http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,2045033,00.html).

Tel Aviv has taken note of the renewed offer, but wants the League to make changes to the offer, particularly on the right of return and the total return of captured territory. The League has countered with a call for Israel to accept the plan and then negotiate the changes it wants.

Don’t hold your breath expecting a quick deal.

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