A Warmed Over Quartet Score or a New Tune in the Middle East?

According to Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post, Oct. 31, the Administration’s supplemental budget request sent to Congress on the 30th includes $435 million in additional aid for the Palestinian Authority, which is s six-fold increase in direct aid to the Palestinians.  $150 million would be for an immediate cash transfer to prevent a fiscal crisis and $130 would be in additional project financing.  $40 million is set aside for improving the Authority’s administration, $25 million for narcotics enforcement, $25 million for security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, and $20 million would be for immediate improvement in health care at government clinics.  $15 million would be for refugees and $10 million for security for experts overseeing project assistance.  The package is targeted to enhance the position of Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, increase the number of Palestinian jobs through project assistance, and to compete with Hamas in critical areas like security and health care.   The Administration appears to be sweetening the pot for the Palestinians prior to the November summit in Annapolis.  But the pot may well be tainted since some members of Congress are already indicating that the funds for the Palestinian Authority are not a given and may be pulled from the legislation if the the November conference does not move the peace process forward.

While the Secretary is once again on the road to the Middle East to husband the conference through to some kind of agreement on principles, the political portents are not very encouraging.  Prime Minister Olmert already is facing rebellion in the ranks of his own party from those who are opposed to any concessions on the critical issues, like Jerusalem, that President Mahmoud Abbas says he must have.  And Abbas faces a fragmented Palestinian Authority and the prospect of renewed violence out of Gaza if he makes any concessions to Israel.  Almost any agreement faces the hostility of outside forces as well. 

The Syrians are deeply concerned that a final settlement of the Palestinian problem would leave them as odd man out with no prospect of getting the Golan back.  The Israelis will have very little incentive to trade off the Golan if that is the only problem left in the Arab-Israel agenda.  Freeing up the Israeli military from duty in the West Bank and positions around Gaza, as an agreement with the Palestinians would presumably do, would make Syria and Hezbollah more vulnerable and easier for Israel to deal with.  It is therefore likely that the Syrians will put pressure on Hamas and its leadership in Damascus to sabotage the Annapolis meeting by generating a confrontation on its eve to keep Olmert at home.

The Iranians, for their part, want to keep the pressure on Israel to keep the idea fixed in Israeli minds that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could have serious consequences in the form of terrorist attacks by Iran’s allies in Hezbollah and Hamas.  Last Saturday, Aytollah Khameni proposed a boycott of the Annapolis meeting.  He suggested, what countries like Saudi Arabia fear, that the meeting has been designed by the Americans to bolster Israel’s position and serve its interests rather than Palestinian interests.   

It would be truly a miracle if the weakest Israeli Prime Minister in years and the leader of the rump Palestinian area could find common cause on peace and make it stick.   The one thing going for this conference is that the parties may fear failure more than success.  However, looking at the facts on the ground it is a close call.

It is understandable that the US Administration needs a success given our low standing in the world.  But it is not at all clear why President Bush chose to pursue the Palestinian issue so late in his tenure and when his credibility and authority areat an all time low.   US policy is seen as having failed in Iraq, failed in Iran, failed in Lebanon and failed in the war on terror.  It is certainly the common wisdom in the Arab world that the US will fail again in Annapolis.   Countries in the region are increasingly inclined to ignore the United States, defy our President and wait for our elections.  In the meantime, a lot more can go wrong.  Let us hope that the troika of Rice, Olmert and Abbas have something more up their sleeves than warmed over quartet music and the formation of yet another committee.