Say you were about to get into a tough showdown, unwanted but necessary. You've got these three buddies who, after promising to back you up the last time you were in a tight spot, ended up letting you down, actually abandoning you. Would you enlist their help again?
Hard to imagine why you would trust them, especially if you've got the muscle without them, right?
That's the question Israeli officials and diplomats are considering these days, wondering why the Bush administration, after being snubbed by the European Union, Russia and the United Nations on the Iraq front, would allow its supposed Quartet partners to play a key role in the expected Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following the Iraq war.
It's no secret that Washington is very angry with these allies, especially France and the UN, over the diplomatic debacle leading to an Iraq war the U.S. is leading with few followers. Administration officials feel these allies are not only wrong strategically in resisting a war to remove Saddam Hussein but were diplomatically deceptive along the way, leading the U.S. to believe they would support the war once Saddam was proved to be dissembling rather than disarming. But that was not the case.
Then, in a surprise move on the eve of war with Iraq, President Bush made a point of speaking out on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, announcing plans to go ahead with the long-delayed "road map," crafted with America's Quartet partners and calling for a cessation of violence leading to a Palestinian state within two years.
One Israeli official told me not to worry. The U.S., he said, has learned its lesson and will not get burned again on the Mideast situation. "The silver lining for us," he said, "is that Washington is so upset with the EU, UN and Russia that after the war, the Quartet will be finished." He also suggested the U.S. will seriously reconsider its support of the UN - the U.S. now pays about 22 percent of the $146 billion budget - after being humiliated by the world body.
But that view may be overly rosy from Israel's perspective, given the layers of international agendas the U.S. has on its plate these days. The Bush announcement last Friday tried, in effect, to accomplish at least three goals. First, it offered a positive signal to the Palestinians who, under intense pressure from the U.S. and Israel, moved toward the concept of relinquishing power from Yasser Arafat by establishing the position of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Whether this will amount to a meaningful shift away from Arafat remains to be seen, but Bush wanted to express satisfaction with the initial step.
Second, Bush was doing a favor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his much-beleaguered partner in the Iraq enterprise. Facing tremendous opposition at home for supporting the war, Blair needed to show his constituents that he had influence with Washington in making progress on the Israel-Palestinian front. Blair could play up the prospect of Israel freezing settlements and of an imminent Palestinian state, while pro-Israel supporters will stress that the new Palestinian prime minister must have "real authority" and that all violence must cease.
That's the beauty and pitfall of the "road map" - it can mean whatever each party wants it to mean. Truth is, while the Quartet's proposal may seem to be a diplomatic success in that sense, the Oslo experience proved that problematic issues can't be papered over indefinitely. The clearer the language, expectations and communication, the better. Otherwise, as happened with Oslo, the agreement will unravel in a maelstrom of charges, countercharges and violence.
Thirdly, the Bush announcement last Friday was a positive gesture to the UN, EU and Russia, saying, in effect, "we have our strong disagreements on Iraq but the Israel-Palestinian conflict is an area and opportunity for us to mend fences and work together again."
Secretary of State Colin Powell has been pushing the concept of reconciling with Europe. The Mideast crisis gives the U.S. a chance to work with the Quartet in another venue.
Of course all of this is exasperating and may make us want to shout, "Don't work out your diplomatic differences over the fate of the world's only Jewish state." But this is the real world, and we must face facts. The Arab-Israeli conflict is still the game that everyone wants to play.
These worries may seem almost a luxury now, with the Iraq war upon us. And much of what happens between Israel and the Arabs will depend on the outcome of that war. But we are better off knowing what is sure to come, and that includes world pressure, led by the U.S., for a Palestinian state and a major change in Israel's settlement policy. Even before that happens, though, Israel could go a long way toward improving its position by easing up on the so-called humanitarian issues that hurt its image so much - the killing of non-combatants, demolishing homes, stringent curfews - without weakening its security.
Easier said than done, I know, but a day of reckoning is coming and it does us no good to keep these issues on the back burner. And there is no better reminder of the infuriating realities of the Mideast situation than the fact that President Bush is likely to engage the Quartet - the very partners that just did him dirty - in trying to resolve this most intractable of conflicts.
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