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Brown: responding to Wittes on Clinton (the Sharm al-Shaykh debate continues)

Nathan Brown, my colleague at GWU (though I didn't see him today because of the snow day), non-resident fellow at Carnegie, and author of the excellent new report "Israel and Palestine: Time for Plan B" [and of a piece in today's FP.com, evidently] writes in to respond to Tamara Wittes about how to read Hillary Clinton's Sharm al-Shaykh speech:

Marc, my first reaction was that you hit the nail right on the head this morning with your post on Clinton’s speech.

Then I read Tamara Wittes’s take, which you also posted.  It made me think again. But it didn’t make me change my mind.  You were right.

It’s refreshing to read that someone as knowledgeable as Tamara has some optimism left.  And she is unquestionably correct on some things. Yes, the US law is draconian and ties the administration’s hands. And she’s right on distinguishing between aid and diplomacy.  

I’ve always said the issue is not what we do with our money—that’s decided. But what do we say?  And what do we tell others?

And here I can’t see Clinton hinting any change.  The passage Tamara cites has Clinton actually putting our policy in the mouths of others, including the Arab League.

Here is the critical place where I disagree with Tamara.  The Egyptians and the Arab League—now joined by many Europeans—are NOT looking for a government that explicitly and unequivocally agrees in advance to abide by PLO agreements, “renounce violence,” and meets all Quartet conditions. They are looking for ways to inch/hint strongly in those directions. That’s why the idea of a technocratic government keeps cropping up, for instance. Our friends are looking for compromise, not capitulation.  And we show no sign of joining them.

In one sense, of course, Tamara is right—Clinton left the door open to a unity government that explicitly meets the Quartet conditions. But so did Bush and Rice. Neither administration has showed any willingness to look at benchmarks, compromises, half-measures, wiggle room, etc.  At least Rice—at the end of her time in office—quietly and grudgingly endorsed Egyptian mediation efforts between Hamas and Fatah.

Read the speech and tell me one place where Clinton said one thing that Rice couldn’t have said.  And it is not just the content but the tone that is strong on this score.

There was one subtle change, but it is hard to tell if it was deliberate.  On Friday she said that a unity government was good only so long as Hamas accepts the Quartet conditions.  Today she applied them not to Hamas as a movement but to the government.  So that can leave the door ajar to a technocratic government.  It still leaves little opening to a unity government.

By the way, when Tamara argues that Clinton deliberately did not mention Abbas and Fayyad by name when speaking of our Palestinian partners, I think she’s reading too much into it.  Read the passage in context—and pause at the word “continue”—and I don’t think her interpretation is likely.

Finally, Tamara—who reads as closely as anyone I know—still misses other things you caught. Gaza is destroyed, so we’re going to rebuild...Ramallah?  Clinton did not offer serious Gaza reconstruction.  She offered—and explicitly argued for—a far more ambitious version of the “West Bank First” strategy with some aid to Gaza thrown in through Ramallah. She threw in something else as well--security “assistance” to the Ramallah government—a red line for Hamas.

 

Stimulating constructive debate on these kinds of issues among informed analysts is one of the best things a blog can hope to achieve.  So I'll leave Brown's response to speak for itself, and retire to my day job for now.

UPDATE:  

Wittes:

One last thing worth noting about Clinton’s statement in Sharm: the signals it sent to Israel. Clinton started her speech by saying, in the president’s name, that he will vigorously pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

 This statement is a clear shot across the bow to Israeli PM-designate Netanyahu, who is now trying to form a right-wing coalition after having rejected Tzipi Livni’s condition for joining an Israeli unity government – a commitment to pursuing a two-state solution. Clinton couldn’t make this two-state statement in Israel tomorrow, because it would be seen there as undue interference in Israeli domestic politics. But by saying it from the podium in Egypt, she gets her message across loud and clear in Israel before her plane hits the tarmac in Lod.

Brown agrees.  So do I.  That has to mean something, no? 

FINAL UPDATE:  From the L.A. Times blog:

Western donors refuse to deal with Hamas and insist that any assistance should be channeled through the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. In this conference, donors reiterated their recognition of Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Western donors threw their full support behind Abbas' Fatah-designed plan to channel aid directly to afflicted Gazans.

"France throws full support behind the Palestinian Authority, the prelude of a future Palestinian state. France has only one interlocutor: It is the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

....

If a national unity government is formed with Hamas and Fatah, Western governments have been called upon not to boycott the new government.  "We expect the international community to deal with that government as one formed by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters.

“There must be a distinction between a Palestinian national unity government and viewpoints vis-à-vis Palestinian organizations that exist on the ground.”   

The Europeans seem flexible on this point. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU commissioner for external relations and neighborhood policy, spoke to reporters at the conference about how the EU would deal with a national unity government that included Hamas. “We have always said that we are in favor of reconciliation behind President Mahoumd Abbas,” she said. 

According to an Egyptian official speaking on condition of anonymity, the availability of funds may spur Hamas to reconcile with Fatah to speed money to the Islamist group’s suffering constituency in the Gaza Strip.

 Is Clinton flexible on this point? 

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