Shmuel Rosner
Haaretz (Opinion)
March 20, 2008 - 6:31pm

To tell the truth, I didn't ask him," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch said in response to a question from U.S. Representative Gary Ackerman (Democrat, N.Y.). The person who wasn't asked was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the question that wasn't asked was whether he planned to run for a second term in a year.

Maybe that's the "truth," but it's not necessarily the whole truth. The U.S. administration does not know whether Abbas is planning on mounting another campaign, but a few of his senior officials believe that he isn't. And so, Abbas' peace-process clock, that of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is ticking. A signed memorandum of principles is the only achievement he can tout. The Palestinian state will be founded by somebody else. If and when.

Abbas' desire for an agreement is not as strong as his desire not to compromise in order to achieve one. Jerusalem is out of the game already. There's a disagreement over the refugees issue: Israel says not a single one will be allowed in, Abbas is digging in. Borders and security arrangements, too, can only be discussed in a very general manner. And Rice still speaks optimistically about hammering out a peace agreement within the year.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad thinks it's all a show, and that facts on the ground count for more than a document. Quartet envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks that Rice is out of touch with reality. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has told her that she should be thanking him for not rushing to remove roadblocks in the West Bank. After there's a terror attack you guys will say that I was right, he says to her, but by then it will be too late because the peace process will already have collapsed. Rice gets annoyed, partly with Barak and partly out of a sense of powerlessness.

Rice pressures Barak to do more, requesting more than pressuring. There must be some checkpoint you can remove, she says. Nu, Barak responds, let's say there is, can Rice point to it and also take responsibility for the consequences?

There does not seem to be too much argument over the settlement construction freeze, either: Ariel Sharon's government promised not to expand the settlements and kept his promise. That leaves the issue of building in East Jerusalem, which on the practical level is translated into a drowsy drill: Israel will build, the U.S. will register its protest.

A few weeks before the Annapolis summit in November, it was agreed that the renewal of the negotiations would be announced there. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert thought that was all that was required of him; Rice thought differently. She sought gestures to the Palestinians, and brought a list that included, among other things, nothing less than the release of 1,000 Palestinians. Olmert and his aides were shocked. The Americans didn't back down. Perhaps, Welch suggested, simply let the 1,000 longest-serving prisoners go? Foreign Ministry Director General Aharon Abramovich, former director general of the Justice Ministry, explained that Israel does not have the death penalty, which means that implementing Welch's suggestion would in effect mean releasing 1,000 murderers. What moral justification is there for that, Abramovich asked Welch.

That is the lazy routine of American "pressure." There's no pressure, and nor should there be. What points exactly should they be pressing, a senior Israeli official asked this week. Evacuating outposts? The Americans know as well as we do that it's a waste of energy. Checkpoints? That's playing with fire. Construction in Jerusalem? Shas will oppose it. Pressure, the official said, can only help if three conditions have been fulfilled: there must be a concrete necessity that can be advanced, there must be a lever through which the pressure can be applied and the party applying the pressure must be willing to live with the results. That is not the situation at present: There's a lever, the Americans always have a lever, but the complaints against Israel are too minor to justify its application and no likely result will considerably change the situation.

This week Lawrence Eagleburger, who was secretary of state in the final year of George H. W. Bush's presidency, recalled how this kind of pressure works. "It can be unpleasant," he said. Bush Sr. wanted a settlement freeze, then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir refused, Bush announced a suspension of its loan guarantees to Israel. It worked, too: When Yitzhak Rabin was elected to succeed Shamir, the Americans didn't shed a tear and the road to Oslo was opened.

Is there a way to bring such pressure to bear today? The Americans would not be thrilled if Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu were to succeed Olmert, and the underlying factors that are obstructing a final arrangement will not change if Israel removes five outposts or seven checkpoints. The Americans hear talk about the need for pressure, and sometimes it may be tempting. But at the end of the day, most of them don't see any benefit resulting from its use. Not because they're too lazy to search for it, but because any such benefit simply doesn't exist.


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