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For Bush, a blast of the nitty-gritty

After a hopeful start, the creeping incrementalism that bedevils Middle East peace negotiating is back with a vengeance, miring President Bush in a swirl of competing demands by Israelis and Palestinians.
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After a hopeful start, the creeping incrementalism that bedevils Middle East peace negotiating is back with a vengeance, miring President Bush in a swirl of competing demands by Israelis and Palestinians concerning checkpoints, security fences, prison amnesties and transit visas.

In his talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Friday, and in talks with Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon next Tuesday, Bush and his diplomatic team are being confronted with the unglamorous minutiae of Mideast diplomacy, precisely the kind of delaying tactics that the White House wanted desperately to avoid when it reluctantly agreed to make a major push for a Mideast settlement just after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

After a start that featured sweeping rhetoric and, more concretely, a cease-fire from Palestinian militant groups, however, both the Israelis and Palestinians have lapsed back into a poker-playing mode, one official close to the process says, unwilling to show their cards or risk their positions until it is clear the other side isn’t bluffing.

That has left the White House with the unenviable job of coaxing, shaming or embarrassing the rival camps to live up to the lofty rhetoric of the summit that introduced the in April, a blueprint for step-by-step concessions meant to end in a comprehensive settlement by 2005.

“‘They say the devil’s in the details, but so far, so little has happened that the devil hasn’t even shown up yet,” says a diplomat involved in the “quartet” talks that created the road map. “To say that the heavy lifting is ahead of us would be a real understatement.”


Events — or some might say, the lack of them — in the two months since the president plunged headlong into Mideast diplomacy have tarnished the sweeping visions put forth by Abbas and Sharon. Exposed to the political elements in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, the early pledges by Israel to dismantle settlements and release prisoners and by the Palestinians to disarm the suicide bombers and make the Palestinian Authority more transparent and accountable have eroded significantly.

The main achievement of the peace process to date — and it is no small one — was Abbas’ successful effort to convince Hamas and Islamic Jihad, along with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, to halt their terror attacks on Israeli cities.

Violence has by no means stopped. On Friday, an Israeli soldier in the West Bank shot and killed a 4-year-old Palestinian boy and wounded two other children. And several Palestinian suicide bombers have blown themselves up, fortunately before they could get near their targets. Whether these were deliberate efforts to demonstration the continued capabilities of the violent Palestinian groups or the acts of freelancers who fumbled their moment of glory is unclear.

Still, relative calm has reigned, and Abbas and his supporters are pressing hard for concessions from Israel to help the Palestinian leader win broader support in Gaza and the West Bank on the theory that only widespread popular support will dissuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad from returning to violence when their three-month truce ends in August.


On Friday, in a move carefully timed to coincide with Abbas’ talks with Bush, Israel announced several small steps described as “confidence building” gestures, including the dismantling of three key West Bank checkpoints, the issuing of 8,500 travel permits for Palestinians who work inside Israel and the delivery of about $72 million in tax refunds owed to Palestinian workers but frozen when what has become known as the “second intifada” began in September 2000.

InsertArt(1978129)Whether this does much to shore up Abbas’ support in the Palestinian territories is questionable, but the prospect of further, more dramatic concessions timed for Sharon’s own visit to Washington next week can’t be ruled out. However, the Israeli commission that reviews prisoner releases — currently the issue Abbas has put the most emphasis on — will not take up the issue until early next month.

The Israelis, too, have their own complaints — the most serious being that Abbas appears to have done very little beyond winning a cease-fire to bring Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa to heel. Israeli officials speak of these groups “pausing to rearm” and say they will not stand by indefinitely if the Palestinian Authority itself does not soon move against the groups’ arms caches, bomb-making facilities and senior commanders. Without much fanfare, Israel has rolled back its policy of targeting such commanders for assassination, so far.

“The Israelis keep saying, ‘That can’t last if there is no movement inside the PA,’” a Palestinian diplomat in the United States says. “A cease-fire to reload is not something Israel is interested in, but if they want more than that, they need to give us something to work with.”


Abbas, too, can cite other “incremental” difficulties. The “outposts” dismantled with great fanfare by the Israelis last month have been quickly replaced by new ones. The release of Palestinian prisoners Abbas hoped would bolster his fragile political standing among his own people amounted to a handful of the more than 6,000 held by Israel. Further, the construction of a wall meant to separate Israel from the largest concentrations of Palestinians on the West Bank is now well under way, walling in a significant amount of territory east of Jerusalem that even moderate Palestinians hope will be a part of a future state someday. It is, to use a well-worn phrase from the region, the essence of “creating realities on the ground.”

The fence, which the Bush administration opposes, is meeting less opposition in Israel itself, however, now that it is under construction, if for no other reason than its usefulness as a way to focus the Palestinian Authority on what is at stake.

“The prospect of an Israeli redeployment behind The Fence is a powerful reason for the Palestinians to make concessions that will prevent this from happening — more powerful than all the battalions and brigades that can be thrown into Nablus or Jenin,” writes Israeli author Hillel Halkin in Friday’s Jerusalem Post. “It’s why we need to go on building it at full speed, even if our ultimate goal is to tear it down again.”

For Bush, who criticized his predecessor for becoming too involved in the intricate details of Mideast negotiating, all of this presents a dilemma. He knows that Arab and other allies who stood by the United States during the Iraq war, chief among them Jordan and Britain, desperately want the president to remain engaged in the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But, as detail turns to objection and objection to obstacle, Bush eventually may find he has to begin twisting arms to get progress reflected on the ground, not merely on paper. With an election year coming, and with Iraq not likely to be pacified anytime soon, that may be more engaged than Bush is willing to be.