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Talking Around Each Other

If anything positive can be said about Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit to Israel and the West Bank this weekend, it’s that Cheney perfectly matched expectations with outcomes. Indeed, Cheney’s visit was minimally anticipated and catalyzed zero progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Most disturbingly, the Vice-President’s presence exposed a widening gap between Israeli and Palestinian priorities relevant to the Annapolis “process,” as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seemingly addressed two entirely different realities in their meetings with Cheney. On one hand, Olmert spoke of Israel’s priorities primarily in regional terms: during his press conference with Cheney on Saturday, Olmert barely mentioned the Palestinians, neatly tucking a reference to peace negotiations among statements regarding Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Abbas limited his priorities to the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, decrying Israeli settlement expansion as a barrier to peace. Moreover, while both leaders expressed their frustration with the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets emanating from Gaza, their strategies for addressing Hamas appeared irreconcilable: Olmert hinted that he would seek an affirmation of U.S. support for Israeli operations against the rockets, while Abbas denounced Israel’s “military escalation against Gaza.”

If the Bush administration wishes to follow its optimistic Israeli-Palestinian rhetoric with meaningful progress, bridging this gap must be a priority. It should begin by reminding Olmert that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—which aim to strengthen Abbas at the expense of Hamas—provide one critical means for undermining Iranian ascendancy. In this vein, the administration should take a tougher line against Israel’s ongoing settlement activity, which contradicts Olmert’s previous promises to halt construction and is mutually exclusive with the Bush administration’s desire to establish a Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side, the administration must remind Abbas that another “national unity” attempt with Hamas—which will provide Hamas yet another window of “calm” for rearming and further consolidating its power—is mutually exclusive with ending the occupation. In this vein, the administration should closely follow the Yemeni-sponsored Hamas-Fatah negotiations, which could facilitate the end of Abbas’ reign as Washington’s great Palestinian hope.

Of course—as I’ve long argued—success in the Annapolis “process” remains highly improbable, beset by weak leaders, a lack of commitment to resolving the conflict’s substantive issues, and the disinterest of key regional players. Yet the Bush administration has invested heavily in promoting it, including through recent visits by the President and Vice-President, as well as rounds of shuttle diplomacy undertaken by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. With barely nine months remaining in office, the administration will have to address both sides’ strategic concerns more directly—and thereby bridge the widening gap between them—if it hopes to receive any bang for this substantial diplomatic buck. Indeed, when the parties openly talk around each other in the presence of the Vice-President, the entire American peace enterprise—with its repetitive calls on leaders to make “tough decisions”—looks like a complete sham.


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