By Stan Crock Street demonstrations in Beirut, Franco-American unity in pressuring Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and the sudden resignation of the Syrian-backed Lebanese Prime Minister certainly have grabbed the international headlines of late. Yet, these dramatic events overshadowed a conference in London that could well turn out to be just as important to the affairs of the Middle East.
I was on the plane bound for the Mar. 1 meeting to support the Palestinian Authority (PA) with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the meeting produced a blueprint by which 30 delegations, including countries and international organizations, could shore up the political, security, and economic structures of the PA. The idea is to build a viable foundation before Israel leaves Gaza and a Palestinian state is formally created.
The meeting and the final communiqu? were significant for several reasons, among them:
Smaller focus. Israel didn't want to attend, fearing the gathering would turn into final-status talks that no one is prepared to hold yet. It was a smart move to have the meeting anyway. The primary focus was on steps the Palestinians must take -- independent of any that President Mahmoud Abbas has to negotiate with Israeli President Ariel Sharon. Plenty of negotiating will take place later (see BW Online, 2/9/05, "Push for Mideast Peace -- Lightly").
No question, Israel has to play a critical role in security and must ease its blocks on the flow of people and commerce if the Palestinian economy is to get a lift. But an Oslo or Madrid conference isn't needed at this point. Both Israel's Gaza withdrawal and Abbas' decision to send police to the Gaza borders were unilateral moves that would have taken forever to implement if each side negotiated something in return for its move. The absence of Israeli diplomats allowed for a focus on constructive steps the Palestinians could take.
A balanced communiqu?. That's not the norm for gatherings with heavy representation of European and Arab nations and international institutions. The communiqu? pleased Israel by unanimously condemning the Feb. 25 Tel Aviv bombing and praising Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. It repeated Abbas' call for an end to all violence against both Israelis and Palestinians. And to assuage the Palestinians, it labeled Israel's security wall an obstacle to Palestinian economic revival and called for a territorially contiguous Palestine, one that creates a viable link between Gaza and the West Bank. That could require Israel to hand over territory.
Palestinian pensions? Pension reform is apparently as much an obsession with PA President Abbas as Social Security overhaul is with President Bush -- and for much the same reasons: politics and finances. Abbas is worried that he won't have enough money to pay government pensions. As the private economy has deteriorated in the West Bank and Gaza, the government has become the employer of a substantial percentage of the working population.
Abbas is seeking money from foreign donors to pay the bills coming due. But the meeting concluded that pension reform also is needed "to enable reduction of public sector wage bills and facilitate a civil service reform." What that means, according to a Bush Administration official, is that Abbas wants to be able to pay his aging pensioner cronies to retain their loyalty and push a lot of "thugs" off the security payroll. Abbas will have to do the latter deftly, though, to make sure they don't quickly move to the opposition, Hamas.
The Hamas factor. In fact, much of the reform effort outlined in London can be viewed as preparing for a campaign against Hamas in the run-up to the July legislative elections. Hamas delivers services such as day care and health care better than the government does, it has an active military, and it's viewed by the people as clean, rather than corrupt.
All of the reform proposals would help push the PA toward bettering its own efforts in those directions. Palestinian officials "have got to not just confront Hamas, they have to compete with Hamas," says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The overhaul of the Palestinian Cabinet, replacing the old guard with honest technocrats, is another sign Abbas understands what he needs to do.
America's bit part. Washington's role was relatively small, even though Rice attended. Her major task is to ensure that the U.S. will act as a coordinator for security reform. That's an important chore, but it's quite different from sponsoring an Oslo conference. Rice repeated several times that America's efforts as a coordinator cannot supplant bilateral work between the Palestinians and Israelis.
The Bush team is letting the two sides learn to play well with each other for a while. That's wise. It's critical to have some confidence-building contacts to start to defuse the distrust and bitterness stemming from the intifada. Eventually, the U.S. can engage in a larger way. But that's some time off. In the meantime, meetings like the one in London that offer concrete nation-building steps are -- and should be -- the focus of international attention. Crock covers diplomatic and national security affairs for BusinessWeek in Washington