As I write this from Cairo at 11:30 a.m. Monday local time, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The first thing to note is that all three of these officials represent political trends that are currently extremely weak within their respective countries.
So in this summit of three weak reeds, can any of the three expect to gain any strength from the support that the other two may– or may not– be able to offer them?
Of these three political trends, Mahmoud Abbas’s is currently (at his domestic level) the least weak. This might seem paradoxical. But his Fateh movement is the only one of these three three trends that has actively engaged with its domestic critics and done the hard work of reaching an agreement for internal entente; he did that through the Mecca Agreement that he concluded with Hamas last week.
By contrast, the administration that Rice represents has done almost nothing to try to reach a workable entente with the domestic critics whose rising power and new willingness to challenge the administration havey been much in evidence in the past two months. And as for Olmert, his complex governing coalition is limping along with little direction, plagued by internal problems and having still failed to recover any of the sense of direction it lost when its main original project– the pursuit of unilateralist “convergence” in the West Bank– was rendered irrelevant by the Hizbullah victory of last summer. (For details of which, see here.)
Though Abu Mazen is currently domestically stronger than the other two summiteers, his ability to give support to the other two weak reeds there is, of course, severely constrained by the terms of that same Mecca Agreement which represented, essentially, his conceding to the reality that Hamas is noticeably stronger and better organized in Palestinian society than is Fateh.
The Mecca Agreement represented a significant set-back to the US-Israeli plan to weaken or break Hamas’s power by using Fateh against it. (Just as, in Iraq at the end of December, the US plan to weaken or break Moqtada Sadr’s power by using SCIRI and other Iraqi Shiite forces against it was also blocked by the indigenous political forces there.)
These days, regarding Palestine, Rice is evidently fnding it hard to come to terms with the Palestinians’ new attainment of national entente. Al-Jazeera English tells us today that she told the Palestinian daily paper Al-Ayyam that: “This is a complicated time, and it has been made more complicated by the (Palestinian) unity government, but I’m not deterred…”
She has been going out of her way to “lower expectations” regarding the outcome of the summit. (Note to Rice: You think anyone even had any expectations of it in the first place?) She has made clear that she intends to coordinate closely with the Israelis throughout all the new bout of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy of which today’s summit is supposed to be a key first step– and that she thinks the parties are nowhere near to reaching any lasting diplomatic agreement. (See her interview with Aluf Benn in today’s HaAretz.)
Here in Egypt I found the well-informed journalist and commentator Fahmi Howeidy quite scathing regarding his expectations from the summit. He told me:
- When Rice visited the region before and said she wanted to reach a final agreement on the Palestinian issue I said that she was not here primarily for the sake of the Palestinians but to try to shore up the Americans’ position in Iraq. It’s the same thing today!
They just want to try to convince the Arabs that they’re doing something about Palestine, in order to help them build an Arab coalition that could support their policies in Iraq– or towards Iran. It’s all a show!
Did he think the Arabs would be taken in?
- Look, for the Arab regimes, it’s not a problem. They don’t need to be persuaded, because they have already stated their support for Bush. Even President Mubarak has said he supports Bush’s ‘surge’ policy. But what the administration needs to do is to convince the Arab people. This, they can’t do, because the Arab people aren’t stupid!”
So, back to my main question: can any of these three weak reeds receive meaningful support from the other two at today’s summit?
However much support Abu Mazen might want to give to Rice or Olmert (and I suspect that isn’t very much, anyway), he is constrained by the terms of the Mecca Agreement– and by the very strong support it has received from within Palestinian society– from making any further concessions to Rice and Olmert at this time.
As for whether they will do anything to support him? That doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, either. In her interview with Benn Rice still seemed quite inflexible regarding the Bushites’ demand that the Palestinian government meet all three of the Quartet’s extremely tough conditions, and she expressed her complete unwillingness to respond to Abu Mazen’s strongly stated request to move rapidly into negotiations of the final-status settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
So I guess that means the answer there would be a “No.”
(I’ll try to update this later in light of any public statements issued after the summit and the lunch that will follow it.)