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Staying Alive

Why Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell will not succeed in Israel.

One a mission to Ramallah and Jerusalem in 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell began with an attempt to bring about a cease-fire and ended in a public squabble with Yasser Arafat. I remember watching an America comedian on late-night television at the time pronounce Powell's trip "somewhat a success--he came back alive."

It’s a joke I have quoted many times since then, and though circumstances in the region are quite different since Powell's stint at Foggy Bottom, the chances for a secretary of State to return home with more substantial achievement than just staying alive haven't really changed. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mideast "special envoy" George Mitchell, who have both been in Israel in the last two weeks, have come with an old textbook--one that many will say is outdated. Mitchell got his regional education in the beginning of this decade, when violence was spiraling, but the more secular. more moderate Fatah faction was still in control of Palestinian affairs. Clinton got her education even further back, when the Oslo peace process was still believed to be viable. Thus, they come with their preconceived beliefs, and with the remnants of the Annapolis process initiated by the George Bush/Condoleezza Rice administration. If they have new tricks to offer, Israelis and Palestinians are being kept in the dark.

What we have heard from Clinton, so far, is tired repetition: More money to the Palestinians in the hope that this time it will be actually given and used wisely. More talk about the "two-state solution"--a mantra the soon-to-be Israeli prime minister does not believe in. More subtle pressure to "ease" conditions for Palestinians, without regard to the fact that closing the Gaza border is one of very few tools with which Israel can try to pressure Palestinian radicals into ceasing their fire. More talk about "Quartet demands" to Hamas--demands that it did not meet in the past and has shown no desire to meet in the future. Hardly the “vigorous” and “creative” diplomacy the Obama administration has vowed to use.

Not that it is Clinton's fault; more "vigorous" diplomacy cannot change the current situation. Her trip might finally convince her how futile the situation is, and how worthless it will be for her to waste her precious time on a lost cause. She will see first-hand how Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas have explored the contours of possible peace deal more extensively than all preceding leaders, but they still couldn't reach an agreed solution--one that both sides would be willing to risk their political future by putting on the table.

She also might notice that the only thing that has made some, if not huge, difference in recent years is the far-from-the-limelight work of General Keith Dayton. He isn't going to bring the sides closer to a final status agreement; but in helping Palestinians build a more efficient national security force, his efforts will enable the Palestinian Authority to more effectively govern some of the territory presumably under its jurisdiction.

Clinton is presumably hearing a lot about the shenanigans of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the achievements of Israel's military in Operation Cast Lead, and the need for Egypt to prevent the smuggling of more weapons into Gaza. But she will also see that all this effort at "preventing" and "deterring," as Israel’s goals in Gaza are often described, hasn't worked--at least, not yet. Thus, pouring money into Gaza--as Clinton and the leaders sharing the stage with her in the Sharm El-Sheikh conference have vowed to do--might make a bad situation even worse in two possible ways: It can be a huge waste of money in the not-unlikely case that Israel will again have to use force in the Gaza strip fairly soon. Or it can serve to deter Israel--rather than Hamas--from the necessary use of such force, fearing the outrage of those countries now investing money in rebuilding the targets that Israel needs to destroy yet again.

Both Clinton and Mitchell know that not much can be done at this time: No brilliant ideas can put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within months, not even a few years; being “vigorously engaged,” as Clinton promised yesterday in Jerusalem, will not tame Hamas or make Abbas a strong leader of the Palestinian people; and no threats can force an Israeli leader to make real compromises when rockets keep falling on voters' heads. Both Clinton and Mitchell have the advantage of being not just foreign-policy wonks, but also former (and in Clinton's case, maybe future) politicians. Thus, hopefully they have a better understanding of the political realities of the Middle East then their predecessor, Professor Rice.

If they do, then like every good politician, they know what needs to be done: Promise money (that might not come), visit frequently (thus avoiding criticism because of "lack of engagement"), speak loudly (when you have a very small stick)--and wait for new ideas or opportunities to emerge. If I understand Clinton's remarks regarding Iran correctly--she told reporters that “it is “very doubtful” that U.S. overtures will convince Iran to stop its nuclear program--putting up a show is becoming a habit for the Obama team in this region. The main event: engage Iran. The sideshow: push the peace process forward. Unfortunately, chances for success in both cases seem quite similar.

Shmuel Rosner, a Tel-Aviv based columnist, blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.

By Shmuel Rosner