Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1999 , pages 10-11

Affairs of State

The Indefatigable Handmaiden to Agreements to Agree Sometime About Something Somewhere

By Eugene Bird

She is unfazed by critics and indefatigable as a traveler to trouble spots, meeting with rebels and trying to negotiate stand-downs and temporary truces if not peace itself. Madeleine Albright has just broken the travel record set by Warren Christopher in his four years as her predecessor. She has been averaging each year the distance to the moon.

By the end of the year she will have traveled almost three-quarters of a million miles to almost a hundred countries, some of them, of course, repeat visits. Her African tour in mid-October was typical of her efforts to assert American leadership in making and keeping the peace among fractious and often unwilling partners.

But it is the people she does not choose to see and the places she has avoided in the Middle East which give the best indication of her frank commitment to engaging when there is some chance of making progress in mediation, while rarely committing either troops or U.S. prestige where prospects are bleak. This take-it-or-leave-it policy of administering advice and counsel to foreign leaders and factions could be called Handmaiden Diplomacy, based on the term she coined for herself, and which will follow her out of office.

Does it Work?

Does it work? Well, the jury may still be out in many instances, such as in the senseless and bloody Ethiopia-Eritrea border war that pits an Israeli-backed Marxist government in Eritrea against an Ethiopian regime that threw out the Israeli-backed communist Dergue regime in Ethiopia. And in Africa the Sierra Leone civil war saw her intervene by meeting with members of the RUF, the particularly brutal rebel group whose trademark is amputating arms and legs of civilians in the cities they occupy, but who cannot be dislodged and are therefore going to be a part of any settlement.

On the African tour, during which she met with John Gareng, the leader for more than a generation of the Sudan rebels, but did not meet with any representative of the government of Sudan, it was apparent that the secretary was not yet willing to avail herself of the good offices of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who in recent years has been the most successful peacemaker in sub-Saharan Africa. But she has used regional powers, such as the new government in Nigeria, as a substitute for American intervention, giving them support in various ways depending on the circumstances, such as U.S. logistical support to the Australian-led United Nations peacemakers in East Timor.

Few Middle Eastern Trips

In the Middle East, her trips have been infrequent, and more reluctantly undertaken than those of Warren Christopher, who was willing to try to engage, even when he had little chance of success. With this secretary, one has the feeling that there is a constant re-evaluation of the odds on success or failure, and sometimes photo opportunities with little point other than U.S. domestic politics.

When a British correspondent asked why she was only seeing Christian rebel leader Gareng in Nairobi, and not representatives of the Muslim government of Sudan, her assistant secretary for African affairs, Patsy Cole, said Albright already had visited Khartoum at least once, and added, “Even if some Sudanese government representatives were in Nairobi she would not see them.”

Slamming doors on governments or movements on which she has given up is also a characteristic of Secretary Albright. She has a less than affable reputation, and does not schmooze in spite of occasional flashes of humor. She is the professor on guard, informed, intelligent but not willing to concede a single point when confronted.

Schedule for the Year 2000: Her Final Year?

How will she act in the fourth and supposedly final year of her tour as secretary? Applying the handmaiden idea to the Middle East peace process, one can speculate on the following travel and activity by the secretary:

  • In February or early March of 2000 she will help arrange yet another White House signing (or maybe it will be held in the neutral area of the Sinai desert again) of yet another framework agreement between two leaders, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, who really agree on nothing except blaming the other party when their irreconcilable differences break down the peace process.

  • About the same time, perhaps earlier, she will again travel to Damascus and Tel Aviv/Jerusalem for one more try at using her handmaiden skills in getting both sides to the table over the Golan.

  • There will be numerous crises in implementing the framework agreement, with the Palestinian Authority turning constantly to lame-duck President Bill Clinton and company for support and Israeli negotiators creatively interpreting the framework to their sole advantage. And although thousands of hours of telephone time by the president, secretary of state, and the peace team will be involved, the Americans mostly will contribute gimmicks to postpone discussion of tough issues such as water, refugees or Jerusalem to some future day. It has been suggested by Don Peretz, long-time refugee expert, that these irreconcilable issues will end up, as in the Egyptian-Israel peace, being referred to special commissions, which may not report back for years or decades.

The difference is that the Israelis are not living cheek-by-jowl with the Egyptians, and there never was an authentic territorial dispute with Egypt. But the Israelis and Palestinians are in daily, even hourly contact, and their fallback positions involve non-negotiable claims to identical turf, not the Sinai.

If Peretz is right, and the end point for the Clinton-Albright peace process is an agreement to postpone all the tough issues for years and possibly decades, there will be not even a semblance of peace. Even allowing for periodic opening of doors for some minor freedom of movement for the Palestinians, the “check-point mentality” of the Israeli security establishment will be so restrictive as to provoke constant outbreaks of violence over the coming decades.

Ehud Barak is more concerned with weaning his own extremist settlers to accepting even the idea of peace with a people whose existence or rights the settlers don’t concede than in finding solutions to how to divide Palestine and how to separate the peoples from each other so that they can live normal lives and share Jerusalem. Barak’s minor concession of perhaps removing 11 out of 40 new illegal hilltop settlements, while in the same week asking for bids on 2,600 new housing units in equally illegal existing settlements in an expansion almost beyond the dreams of Netanyahu, is typical of what can be expected while the committees meet and settle nothing. But the handmaiden has demonstrated that in her remaining year on the job she will only stand by and protest feebly that such expansions are not helpful, and that Congress ties her hands. There will be no appeals to Congress, protests to the United Nations or, heaven forbid, threats of resignation as resorted to by CIA director George Tenet when President Clinton sought to clinch the Wye River agreement by releasing spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard.

The U.S. and the Skyscrapers

It is a good bet that the U.S. has no policy on any of the Israel-Palestine-Syria issues and does not want to create one, especially on Jerusalem. The U.S. only hopes that some formula can be found which Yasser Arafat will accept as an interim postponement (until the next U.S. administration) of any decision.

Meanwhile, the other Ehud, hard-line Likud Mayor Ehud Olmert of Jerusalem, is battling for a grandiose new expansion of high-rise Israeli skyscrapers around the Old City that once inspired religious awe throughout the world. The new project appalls even Israeli city planners. That fits just fine with handmaiden diplomacy: Wait until there is a call for help from both sides, then serve as a handmaiden to record the destruction, not a participant.

But of course the U.S. is a participant, deeply over-committed to one side. We are at the least a co-founder and major investor in Zionism. We were first to recognize Israel (after 11 minutes of thoughtful deliberation on the consequences for incumbent President Harry Truman’s 1948 re-election campaign) among the great powers and have provided Israel not only with financial resources approaching $100 billion in taxpayer money alone, but have supported it politically, at great expense to our own image for fairness.

The fix is in. Sometime early next autumn, just before the U.S. general election, there will be yet another signing ceremony between Israelis and Palestinians (unless the Syrians will oblige instead), orchestrated by President Clinton and signed in full view of the American public. It will not settle any of the three key issues of Jerusalem, water and refugees. Nor will it deal with final boundaries. Like the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995 and the subsequent Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh and Wye River accords, it will be an agreement to agree someday about something, and for the U.S. to keep paying the bills for everyone doing the agreeing. The Israel Lobby in Washington will see to that.

The U.S. recognized Israel without specifying what was Israel: Where are its borders? That question will not be answered at all in the new “final” negotiations, and will bedevil everyone far into the next century.

In fact, nothing will change over there until something changes in U.S. domestic politics over here.

Eugene Bird, a retired foreign service officer, is president of the Council for the National Interest and diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,.

SIDEBAR 1

The U.S. Congress: Shooting Its Way to Peace

According to an article in the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, Oct. 19, 1999, the American Congress has approved full funding for several joint Israeli-American military projects. The projects include:

  • $5 million for the pilotless drone project, an unmanned plane meant to shoot down ballistic missiles in flight

  • $44 million for a project to upgrade T-38 training planes

  • $81 million for the Arrow anti-missile missile program

  • $80 million for the “LITENING” navigation pods

  • $25 million for Bradley Reactive Armor for armored personnel carriers

  • $10 million for “Itald” decoy planes

  • $10 million for the THEL laser for shooting down Katyusha missiles in flight

The administration requested $201 million to fund these Israeli defense projects, with Congress granting $255 million, $54 million over the request of the administration.

According to Ha’aretz, however, despite the generosity of the U.S. Congress, Israel now is complaining that the $5 million approved for the drone project is not enough to get the project underway.

SIDEBAR 2

State Has End Run by Lobby

In an end run around the usual legislative process, the extremist Zionist Organization of America and its supporters on Capitol Hill circulated five different resolutions supporting the U.S. changing the status of its official operations in Jerusalem to place all of them under the Embassy in Tel Aviv. It was a pre-emptive strike against the final status negotiations and the solemn pledge by all parties not to make any changes until those are completed.

As a matter of principle the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) reportedly refused to support, but also did not condemn, the resolutions that were backed by American supporters of the ZOA, for which even the Likud government of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was too soft. The whole operation was, in effect, ZOA application of a “loyalty oath” for congressmen running for re-election in the year 2000 campaign: “Show that you will support Jerusalem as a city totally under Israeli sovereignty, including East Jerusalem. “

The five resolutions were reduced to three, then to two in conference between the House and Senate, and sailed through only to have the entire appropriations bill vetoed by the president because it did not contain enough money for the Department of State. (And for Israel’s cash reward for implementing the Wye River agreement, or some of it.)

At press time, the Congress was going back to the drawing board and the ZOA- inspired resolutions were to be inserted into some final appropriations bill, probably an omnibus budget bill before Thankgiving.

The most contentious provision among those undermining the peace process pledge not to take steps to prejudge the final status talks discussions on Jerusalem was placement of the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, including its East Jerusalem main consular office, under the embassy in Tel Aviv. That would be tantamount to recognition by the U.S. of East Jerusalem (including the critical Old City, containing the sites sacred to Muslims and Christians as well as to Jews) as Israeli territory, rather than as an internationally-administered area as provided in the U.N. partition plan that made possible the creation of Israel.

For fifty years the U.S. Consulate General has been independent. It has never recognized the conflicting claims of sovereignty by Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority over Jerusalem, which still await international arbitration.

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