The Bush administration, looking to shore up its foreign-policy legacy, and the international community, hoping to influence the future Obama White House, are teaming up to press the Middle East peace process forward.
It's an against-the-odds attempt. But the first United Nations Security Council resolution on the peace process in five years – since the diplomacy-stalling Iraq war in 2003 – was approved Tuesday. The vote was 14 to 0, with Libya abstaining.
The idea is to show broad support for keeping the peace process that was started by President Bush a year ago on its rails into the next US presidency.
The resolution, sponsored by the US and Russia, has little binding impact but sends a number of signals. First, it indicates, especially to the Israelis and Palestinians, that even though the so-called Annapolis process did not result in a peace agreement by the end of Mr. Bush's term, progress has been made and should be built upon. And second, a signal goes out to President-elect Obama that the peace process should not start over from Square 1 when he takes office.
The irony of this second point is that it is promoted in particular by the Bush administration, which wanted nothing to do with the negotiation structure left behind by the Clinton White House.
The peace process is confronting a period of transition on more fronts than one, as Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the UN, noted repeatedly before the vote. "We believe that the effort has to be pinned down, and it has to continue without a pause, which may be there because of some political circumstances – change of administration in the United States, elections in Israel, possible elections in the Palestinian autonomy," he said.
But the political context is just one reason that some see the resolution having little practical impact. Arab officials who attended a Monday meeting of the Quartet of powers shepherding the peace process – the US, Russia, the UN, and the European Union – expressed frustration over the lack of major progress toward a settlement and a Palestinian state.
The resolution could even set back progress if it had the effect of enshrining an unsuccessful approach to peace, some analysts say. "A Security Council resolution that provides explicit support for the two-state solution is a good thing. But if it locks in a format or negotiating approach, in particular one that after a year has provided ample proof of not working, then it is a bad thing," says Philip Wilcox, a former US diplomat who is now president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.
Condoleezza Rice, who was in New York Monday and Tuesday for what could be her last appearance at the UN as secretary of State, defines the Annapolis process as "both bottom-up and top-down" – meaning it is not simply the US and other powers knocking the parties' heads and telling them what they have to do. Indeed, Secretary Rice has been criticized for leaving the two sides on their own in negotiations and not playing the traditional American go-between. But, she insists, "considerable progress [has been made] on the core issues."
The two sides have made some progress on "incremental issues," Mr. Wilcox says, but none on the core issues – such as borders, status of Jerusalem, and Israeli settlements.
Israel is supportive of the resolution, said Gabriela Shalev, Israel's ambassador to the UN, speaking to reporters Tuesday in New York. One reason for Israel's stance, she says, is that the resolution gives support to the Annapolis process and its emphasis on bilateral (instead of multilateral) negotiations.
"We are committed to the peace process, but the peace process is something that has to go on between the parties themselves," Ambassador Shalev says. "There can be some kind of pushing from the outside, but in the end, it must be the two parties" that reach an accord.
Even some officials who believe considerable progress has been made over the past year – for example, in creating viable Palestinian security forces in the West Bank – say the resolution reflects the wishes of its sponsors and in particular the personal drive of Rice.
"This has become something of a personal thing for her," said a senior European official, who wished not to be named because the diplomatic discussions over the resolution were ongoing. "You have to give [Rice] credit: She has managed to push the parties further down the road."