Today's New York Times story on the seven Gazan students unable to take up their Fulbright Scholarships due to the Israeli government's denial of exit permits, and the American government's inability to reverse the decision, is a terribly sad reflection on today's realities. Sad of course for the seven Gazan students. Sad for an Israel that should know better and that should have an interest in young Gazans being educated in the U.S. and to bringing that experience home to the Palestinian territories (Israeli Labor Party Knesset Member Rabbi Melchior called the policy "not in keeping with international standards or with the moral standards of Jews"). And sad--no actually devastating as a comment on how dwarfed American diplomatic capacity has become under the Bush Administration. Hopefully there will be a silver lining for the seven students, and perhaps the exposure of the story in itself will cause a re-think, but American diplomacy is unlikely to re-emerge from it's "mini-me" status until at least next year.
Think about it--since the Annapolis peace conference last November, the Administration has been talking about peace in our time--by the end of '08. Official declarations have focused on freezing settlements, freezing checkpoints, negotiating final borders, and proving to the Palestinian public that Hamas is not the answer. All sounds nice. And then there were the seven students from Gaza. Seven students--they can't get seven students out of Gaza in order to study in the U.S. and benefit from the scholarships they probably worked so hard for. Do they assume that ending the historic conflict is a cake-walk in comparison?
Is it that they don't care? Is it that they're not competent? Does it really matter? Britain's Foreign Secretary in the early 1990s, Douglas Hurd, used to describe a Britain punching above its weight in international diplomacy. The Bush Administration has reversed the equation to an almost unimaginable degree. American diplomacy in the Middle East right now is struggling to make bantam-weight.
Just look at the last couple of weeks and what has transpired in the Middle East. Lebanon was on the brink of chaos and renewed civil war. A deal was brokered to elect a new President and for a new power-sharing cabinet. That deal was brokered by....Qatar. The talks were hosted in Doha. America was absent. It's a fragile deal; it needs nurturing. Will the Bush Administration play that role? There is nothing to suggest a positive answer.
Israel and Syria conduct proximity talks, resuming negotiations after an 8 year hiatus in peace talks. Those talks are designed to bring predictability and security to Israel's Northern border, to establish a peace treaty and to coax Syria into a network of relationships less focused on Iran. The negotiations are being brokered by...Turkey. The talks were hosted in Istanbul. America was absent. The peace talks will be difficult, creating a new reality needs nurturing. The Bush administration has not facilitated, encouraged or expressed any enthusiasm for these Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.
There are reasonable claims also being made that the Sadr City ceasefire was brokered by Iran.
And that brings us back to our Fulbright Scholars story, where the Bushite diplomatic dwarf meets the seven Gazans. These 7 bright youngsters make up just 0.000005% of the population of Gaza. What about the other 1.4 million Gazans living with collective punishment and under a closure that continues to have a devastating impact on every social, health and economic measure that one can imagine? And what about the 20,000 residents of the Israeli town of Sderot, and the neighboring communities, who are coming under frequent rocket barrage, including occasionally the town of Ashkelon, with its 117,000 residents? Where is American diplomacy?
There is an alternative--a ceasefire. And what do you know, Israel is in fact indirectly negotiating with Hamas and with the other Palestinian factions in Gaza to reach a ceasefire arrangement. This would allow the civilians on both sides to resume some normalcy in their lives, remove them from the line of fire, improve security and give people some hope. And these ceasefire negotiations are being mediated by...well it's the Egyptians. The talks are being hosted in Cairo. And you've already guessed the American contribution--nada, oh, there was a Presidential speech about appeasement.
The conditions in Gaza are intolerable with the imposition of a rigid closure (see this recently released report by leading NGOs, including Oxfam International, Amnesty International, and Save the Children)--social, economic and health conditions are desperate, and 80% of Gazan families subsist on humanitarian aid. Daily life for the residents of Israel's south is no picnic either. Life in the shadow of the unpredictable Qassam rockets that indiscriminately target civilians is unacceptable.
A ceasefire will not be easy. The ingredients are known--end hostilities in both directions, remove the economic blockade, take action to prevent arms entering Gaza via Egypt, and pursue a prisoner exchange deal to secure the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier being held in Gaza). But there are multiple actors, competing interests, deep mutual hostility and even deeper mutual suspicions. A ceasefire will require heavy diplomatic lifting and even heavier maintenance and ongoing support. Egypt cannot do it alone (and serious questions should be asked of members of the international community who are also absent here). America, taking a pass on this--or worse, working to discourage and undermine the ceasefire--will not serve the interests of re-stabilizing the Middle East, building a meaningful peace process or improving America's much-damaged standing in the region.
The Bush administration may yet get the seven Fulbright scholars out, and that would be great, but don't hold out hopes for the 1.4 million left behind, their Israeli neighbors, or a Middle East that is still being fed a policy of poisoned apples by the neoconservative dwarfs.