Clinton to Visit Middle East Amid Calls for Radically New Peace Strategy

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week will make her first foray into Middle East diplomacy, attending a high-level conference on humanitarian assistance to Gaza and making the rounds of Israeli and Palestinian officials, at a time when a growing chorus of voices in the United States say the peace process needs a dramatically new approach.

President Obama won praise by appointing a Middle East envoy on his second full day in office, indicating a commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell, is making his second tour of the region in a month and will meet with Clinton at the aid conference, which is scheduled to be held tomorrow in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

But neither Mitchell nor Clinton appears to have come up with new ideas for rekindling peace efforts. Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, devoted the final months of his presidency to unsuccessfully trying to achieve a peace agreement, even sketching a series of groundbreaking proposals -- still known as the "Clinton parameters" -- for bridging the gaps. But much has changed since 2001, and the Bush administration's last-minute effort at peacemaking, known as the "Annapolis process," also collapsed.

Clinton will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the West Bank, on Tuesday and Wednesday before flying to Europe for meetings -- and every word that she utters in the region will be closely monitored for clues to the administration's approach. Israelis, for instance, will be listening for how hard she presses for Palestinian governmental reform and an end to corruption, while Palestinians are eager to hear a tougher U.S. stance on Israeli settlement construction in Palestinian territories. "It would be great to hear an American official say that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law," said Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington. "But I don't think I will ever live to see that day."

Mitchell authored a plan in 2001 to reduce tensions and make progress. Israelis and Palestinians embraced the plan as fair, but it was never implemented. In a conference call with Jewish American leaders last month, Mitchell said that when he reread his report, he was struck by how much had changed in the past eight years, according to an account of the conversation published by JTA, a Jewish news service. Iran, he said, was not mentioned in the report, but every leader in the region brought up the problem of Iranian influence during his initial tour.

Any new peace effort would be complicated by other factors, including the prospect of a new right-wing Israeli government hostile to the idea of a Palestinian state and the splintering of the Palestinian leadership into a moderate faction that runs the West Bank and a radical group that controls the Gaza Strip. Israel waged war in December against the militant group Hamas, which controls the narrow coastal strip that is home to almost half the Palestinian population, and it has kept a tight grip on crossings into Gaza, making it all but impossible to begin reconstruction.

The administration faces tough decisions: How does it get aid flowing to the Gazans or encourage Palestinian unity without bolstering Hamas, and how does it encourage the new Israeli government to open up crossings, ease settlement expansion and begin to consider talks with the Palestinians? Increasingly, many analysts say, the goals are contradictory and virtually impossible to achieve.

The United States, for instance, intends to make a substantial pledge at the conference, American officials say, but whether much of it can be delivered is unclear.

"It will only be spent if we determine that our goals can be furthered rather than undermined or subverted," Clinton told the Voice of America in an interview Friday. She said aid dollars will "be spent only in service of the goals that will help people feel more secure in their lives and, therefore, more confident that progress toward peace would serve them better than retreating to violence and rejectionism."

Although officially the Israeli government refuses to deal with Hamas -- and U.S. policy dictates that there can be no contacts until the group renounces violence and recognizes Israel -- Jerusalem is negotiating a cease-fire deal with the militant movement via Egypt.

Hamas and its moderate Palestinian rival, Fatah, also have begun talks on creating a unity government, which would complicate U.S. diplomacy. During a meeting in Washington last week, Clinton told Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, that she hoped such efforts succeeded, according to league Ambassador Hussein Hassouna. But in the VOA interview, she said that unless Hamas meets international conditions for recognition, "I don't think it [a unity government] will result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace that leads to a Palestinian state."

The issues are so complex that some analysts are advocating a radical rethinking. Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed scaled-back goals in a recent article in the Weekly Standard that was highly critical of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's efforts to reach a deal. "It is time to face certain facts: We are not on the verge of Israeli-Palestinian peace; a Palestinian state cannot come into being in the near future; and the focus should be on building the institutions that will allow for real Palestinian progress in the medium or longer term," he wrote.

From the other side of the political spectrum, Nathan J. Brown, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a paper published last week that the effort to create a two-state solution "has come to a dead end" and that it is "time for a Plan B." He advocated a clear and perhaps even written cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which could be broadened into an armistice. The effort would require breaking the taboo against speaking to Hamas, but he argued that the taboo has been broken because of indirect negotiations. "The question is whether to make a virtue out of necessity of declaring it open," he wrote.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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