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An Endless Vacuum in the Middle East

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 18, 2006

President Bush once asked former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon why he had proposed his bold plan to evacuate Israeli settlers and soldiers unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. "To fill the vacuum," Sharon frankly replied. Before Sharon uncorked the idea in the fall of 2003, the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" was stalemated, and there was mounting international pressure for progress. Proposals from outsiders and would-be brokers were proliferating; Sharon feared one of them would eventually gain traction and be imposed on him. So, with the flair that won him many a battlefield victory, he outflanked the incipient discussion.

Three years later, in the aftermath of a war that was one of the unforeseen consequences of Sharon's strategy, a similar vacuum looms before his successors. Once again there seems no clear way forward toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The unilateral West Bank pullout championed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier this year is, at least for now, dead. But a settlement seems more urgent than ever, and lots of people have ideas: Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan, the Arab League.

Most of them are bad: grandiose proposals for international conferences or non-starters that would require Israel to accept the "return" of millions of Palestinians to its own territory as a condition for Arab recognition of what would no longer be a Jewish state. Nonetheless, the U.N. Security Council may debate the various schemes at the end of this week.

Both Olmert's government and the Bush administration know that this would be the ideal moment to put a new, game-changing plan on the table. But as a visit to Washington last week by Olmert's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, made clear, they haven't got one. Livni spent hours in conversation with Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior officials, with the goal of coordinating positions before the expected onslaught of diplomacy at the United Nations. The bottom line, one official said, is that "there will be no major diplomatic initiative."

Why the paralysis? There are some important substantive reasons, including the simple fact that the end of Israeli unilateralism means an Arab partner is needed -- and the Palestinian Authority is not ready for a serious peace process. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza a year ago, neither President Mahmoud Abbas nor the rival Hamas movement has been able to gain control over an increasingly anarchic territory.

There are also powerful political problems here and in Israel. With his presidential capital rapidly waning, Bush is focused on finding solutions for Iraq. Trying to solve the Middle East's most intractable conflict on top of that is a stretch. Olmert's government is reeling from the war in Lebanon, besieged by critics who say he failed to deliver on promises to cripple Hezbollah or that he squandered the lives of the scores of Israelis who were killed. For the next few months, at least, he will be focused simply on surviving in office.

Bush and Livni consequently found themselves watching with a mixture of apprehension and dismay last week as the usually passive Palestinians launched a Sharonesque gambit. Abbas announced that he had struck a deal with Hamas and other factions on a "unity government" that he would discuss with Bush at a meeting this week at the United Nations. Hamas leaders, meanwhile, floated an even bolder backup plan: dissolving the Palestinian Authority, which could force Israel to resume its occupation.

The Palestinian leadership knows that the still-evolving unity pact isn't likely to impress either Olmert or Bush, since it almost certainly won't commit Hamas or the new government to formal recognition of Israel or an unqualified renunciation of violence. But if it goes forward it will be a fresh initiative -- and it could break the current international embargo on the Palestinian Authority, by persuading European governments to renew subsidies that cover half of the authority's payroll. Western governments and Israel would be reduced to arguing with each other, rather than pressing for a Palestinian government that could make peace.

The U.S.-Israeli strategy to counter this maneuver amounts to a series of small tactical steps. Once an Israeli soldier still held captive in Gaza is released, Olmert will meet with Abbas and release hundreds or thousands of Palestinian prisoners. An Israeli chokehold over movement in and out of Gaza will be eased. If all goes well, Olmert might even discuss transferring security responsibility in several West Bank towns from the Israeli army to Palestinian security forces controlled by Abbas.

All these would be useful steps forward. They wouldn't, however, fill the vacuum.

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