Diplomatic Diary: Giving Peace A Chance

The way the president greeted the first reports of a Palestinian ceasefire, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. Standing beside the leaders of the European Union inside the gilded East Room of the White House, Bush poured scorn on the whole story.

First came the soundbite everyone quoted: "I'll believe it when I see it." But underlying that quip was a far more skeptical view about the very notion of a ceasefire. "The true test for Hamas and terrorist organizations is the complete dismantlement of their terrorist networks, their capacity to blow up the peace process," he said. "It's one thing to make a verbal agreement. But in order for there to be peace in the Middle East, we must see organizations such as Hamas dismantled, and then we'll have peace."

All this from an administration that is supposed to be the driving force behind a peace plan--the so-called roadmap to a Palestinian state--in the Middle East. You might have expected some sense of optimism, or at least hope, from a president who has committed himself to making the peace process a priority. Instead, Bush trashed the negotiations before they had even concluded.

So as the president effectively demanded the destruction of Hamas, his senior foreign policy official looked distinctly edgy. Sitting in the front row, to the side of Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell fiddled nervously with a pen in his hand, his eyes darting around the room for reaction. That kind aggressive posture from the president was not exactly part of the gameplan--especially at a time of highly sensitive negotiations on the ground.

Contrast Bush's pessimism with Powell's sweep of the breakfast shows at the start of the week, and you can see all the tensions inside the administration over the Middle East. In a region where nuance is everything and nobody trusts each other's intentions, these tensions have prompted repeated questions about where Washington is headed. It's not hard to see why. "I think we should be optimistic," Powell told ABC's "Good Morning America." Powell said his optimism was based on the "very positive development" of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. As for the ceasefire, he said it was not "enough, but at least it's a beginning."

"This ceasefire at least reinforces what's happening in Gaza," he added.

So can we allow ourselves to be optimistic about the terrorist ceasefire and Israeli withdrawals? Or was Bush right when he said there won't be peace until the terrorist groups are completely destroyed?

First, the good news about the Prime Ministers. Both the ceasefire and the withdrawals were negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians, with little support from the United States, Egypt and other interested parties. This would suggest that both sides are serious about peace for once--and serious about negotiating with each other. That message was underscored by the photo op staged in Jerusalem on Tuesday, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stood side by side with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Second, the mixed news about the Palestinians. Nobody inside the Bush administration believes the ceasefire is the beginning of the end of Hamas and other terrorist groups. But there are many officials--especially at the State Department--who believe the ceasefire could be the end of the beginning of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the new Palestinian government. After a very rocky start, the ceasefire and withdrawals give Abbas a chance to build some popularity among his own people. The optimists inside the Bush administration were given assurances by Abbas that the withdrawals were the first step along a path to claiming power. One senior State Department official described the Palestinian position like this: "If we can restore trust and the ability to travel in Gaza to our people, they will like us better and we will get their support."

That leaves the bad news about the terrorists: the hard work is all to come. "The ceasefire isn't seen as a step to dismantling [Hamas] even by the Palestinians," concedes one senior U.S. official who recently returned from the region. "They know they won't turn in their weapons right away. But it creates a period of non-violence, during which Palestinian security could be built up and consolidated and make gains vis-a-vis the militants."

All this must happen within the three-month ceasefire. When you take a look at the long peace process in Northern Ireland, it's hard to see how anyone can move forward in just three months. To this day, the rival political and religious groups in Northern Ireland are engaged in desperate disputes over how to disarm and dismantle the terrorists. It took two years of talks after an IRA ceasefire for the so-called Good Friday agreement to emerge in 1998. That set up a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland that is actually now suspended because the terrorists are still failing to hand over their weapons. And remember: the deadlock in Northern Ireland comes in spite of the lengthy presence of British troops and heavy crackdowns by a now-reformed police force.

Bush is of course right to say there can be no lasting peace while the terrorists remain armed. Yet if you want to start a peace process, you must be in it for the long haul. There may well be good cause for mild optimism in the Middle East. But if we expect and demand--as the president did last week--that the terrorist groups are dismantled in short order, we are surely heading for another disappointment. And as we know from the last bout of optimism in 2000, each new failure leads to an increasingly dismal round of bloodshed.

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