The Aban­don­ment

How the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion Left Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans to Their Fate

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Aaron David Miller

This is the tragedy of Amer­ica’s sit­u­a­tion now in the Promised Land: Never has the Arab-Is­raeli is­sue been more crit­i­cal to our na­tional in­ter­ests and to our se­cu­rity, yet rarely have we been so uniquely ill-po­si­tioned to man­age it — let alone re­solve it. In a post-9/11 era, the cause of Pales­tine drives re­cruits to al-Qaeda and helps gen­er­ate lethal lev­els of anti-Amer­i­can­ism. But for al­most seven years, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion has hung a “Closed for the Sea­son” sign on se­ri­ous Arab-Is­raeli diplo­macy. Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice’s re­cent Mid­dle East mis­sion has shown that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is now fi­nally open for Arab-Is­raeli busi­ness. But the Rice ini­tia­tive is al­most cer­tainly way too lit­tle, way too late.

Watch­ing Rice th­ese days, I have to be­lieve that she knows this too, de­spite her pub­lic op­ti­mism. Hav­ing worked for her six pre­de­ces­sors on Arab-Is­raeli ne­go­ti­a­tions, I think it’s pretty clear that the odds against a dra­matic break­through are long, the time for the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion is short, and the gaps be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans are ga­lac­tic. So Rice’s be­lated ef­forts face ter­ri­bly long odds — both be­cause the re­gion has changed too much and be­cause the United States has sat on the side­lines for too long.

As one of the plan­ners of the Camp David sum­mit in July 2000, I’m painfully aware that Pales­tinian leader Yasser Arafat’s un­will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate, Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Barak’s il­lu­sions about end­ing the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict on the cheap and Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s well-in­ten­tioned but weak sum­mit man­age­ment doomed the last, best chance for a break­through. But if you think diplo­macy doesn’t work, try aban­don­ment. Years of off-again, on-again Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­fronta­tion and ne­glect from the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion have re­duced the chances of end­ing the con­flict from slim to none.

Part of the prob­lem is that the “soft­ware” of Is­raeli-Pales­tinian re­la­tions has changed: The con­fi­dence, trust and prob­lem-solv­ing spirit of the 1990s Oslo peace process have been re­placed by uni­lat­er­al­ism, fear, anger and a loss of faith in the power of ne­go­ti­a­tions to al­ter cruel re­al­i­ties on the ground. But the hard­ware of the con­flict has also changed dur­ing the

Bush hia­tus. Pales­tinian sui­cide ter­ror­ism, rock­ets and kid­nap­pings have com­bined with Is­raeli clo­sures, tar­geted killings and set­tle­ment growth to make co­op­er­a­tion ex­cru­ci­at­ingly dif­fi­cult. The em­blem of this de­te­ri­o­ra­tion is Ha­mas, which has had the up­per hand in Pales­tinian pol­i­tics since win­ning elec­tions in Jan­uary 2006. The rad­i­cal Is­lamic move­ment’s en­try into Pales­tinian gov­ern­ment — with­out aban­don­ing ter­ror­ism — has pro­duced a sem­blance of unity in Pales­tinian pol­i­tics, but it has also guar­an­teed con­tin­ued strife with Is­rael. Pales­tini­ans are buy­ing peace at home at the price of con­flict next door.

To those in­trepid souls who ar­gue that des­per­a­tion and cri­sis have pushed Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans closer to a deal in the seven lost years, I can say only that I hope so — but my ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests oth­er­wise. In an ex­is­ten­tial con­flict driven by me­mory, iden­tity, re­li­gion and na­tional trauma, the Is­raeli and Pales­tinian ca­pac­i­ties to ab­sorb and in­flict pain are lim­it­less. When th­ese two sides be­come fear­ful and an­gry, they don’t get mag­nan­i­mous, they get even. Rice has said that “the un­der­ly­ing cir­cum­stances” for peace­mak­ing “are bet­ter now” than they were in 2000. That re­minds me of Grou­cho Marx’s fa­mous line: “Who are you go­ing to be­lieve, me or your ly­ing eyes?”

There are a few hope­ful signs, par­tic­u­larly Saudi Ara­bia’s new peace push and a will­ing­ness by some key pro-U.S. Arab states to be more ac­tive. But against th­ese rays of hope looms a per­fect storm of neg­a­tives that has been gath­er­ing for years. Here are the four most trou­bling prob­lems:

Weak Lead­ers

Even if there were a deal to be cut, no­body is on the ground to cut it. The age of heroic pol­i­tics in Arab-Is­raeli peace­mak­ing is over, at least for now. We see plenty of smart politi­cians but few states­men. The ti­tans — Egypt’s An­war Sa­dat, Jor­dan’s King Hus­sein, Is­rael’s Me­nachem Be­gin and Yitzhak Rabin — are gone; even more flawed fig­ures such as Arafat and Ariel Sharon are gone. And with them have gone the his­toric le­git­i­macy, courage and clout for mak­ing big de­ci­sions. In­stead, on the Is­raeli side, we’ve seen young, in­ex­pe­ri­enced prime min­is­ters — Barak, Binyamin Ne­tanyahu and the coun­try’s flail­ing cur­rent leader, Ehud Olmert — who lack author­ity and tend to stum­ble badly.

On the Arab side, the sit­u­a­tion is even gloomier. Syria’s pres­i­dent, Bashar al-As­sad, has man­aged to re­veal al­most all the tyran­ni­cal flaws of his late fa­ther but none of his savvy strengths. On the Pales­tinian side, Mah­moud Ab­bas, the head of Arafat’s fad­ing Fatah fac­tion, is a good man who’s be­ing per­ma­nently side­lined by Ha­mas.

Yes­ter­day’s ti­tans made his­tory. To­day’s pols are pushed around by it. They are pris­on­ers, not masters, of their pol­i­tics and con­stituen­cies. And it’s hard to see any­one bet­ter on the hori­zon.

Strong Spoil­ers

In this lead­er­ship vac­uum, non-state ac­tors have wreaked havoc. Ha­mas and the rad­i­cal Le­banese Shi­ite mili­tia Hezbol­lah are more than just the gar­den-variety ter­ror­ists and thugs who, in the old days, could re­tard but not block peace­mak­ing ef­forts. The new spoil­ers are se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal play­ers. Ha­mas can con­strain and even block Ab­bas’s peace ef­forts; Hezbol­lah showed dur­ing its sum­mer 2006 war with Is­rael that it can em­bar­rass Is­rael’s army and bom­bard its north. Th­ese groups — backed by Iran and Syria — can cre­ate huge prob­lems for weak lead­ers al­ready

un­will­ing to take risks.

Vast Gaps

The old con­ven­tional wis­dom was that we knew what an Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace deal would look like and just needed to some­how land it. But any­one who still be­lieves that Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans were “this close” to an agree­ment at Camp David has been talk­ing to the peace process fairy too much. The hard fact is that each of the four ti­tanic is­sues that sank the sum­mit — borders, Jerusalem, Pales­tinian refugees and se­cu­rity — rep­re­sent a uni­verse of se­ri­ous un­fin­ished busi­ness. (And that’s not for lack of try­ing dur­ing the Clin­ton years; when I think about our ef­forts to con­vince Barak and Arafat that the way to solve the prob­lem of who would own Jerusalem’s holi­est sites was to hand sovereignty over them to God, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.) Ham­mer­ing out an agree­ment to end the con­flict was too hard in 2000, and it’s al­most un­think­able in 2007.

Amer­ica Ab­sent

Fi­nally, and per­haps most im­por­tant, since Jan­uary 2001, we just haven’t had the U.S. com­mit­ment to peace­mak­ing that we’ve needed — an Amer­ica that’s will­ing to build bridges when it can and crack heads when it must. Ad­mit­tedly, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion in­her­ited pretty much the worst imag­in­able Arab-Is­raeli hand: the balky Arafat on one side, the bull­doz­ing Sharon on the other, and an Is­raeli-Pales­tinian war rag­ing be­tween them. Still, Pres­i­dent Bush never saw the Arab-Is­raeli con­flict as any kind of pri­or­ity. Nor, in the af­ter­math of 9/11 and Iraq, has he ever be­lieve that work­ing the peace process might help him ad­vance the Mid­dle East is­sues he does care about.

Of course, Bush hasn’t got­ten many real op­por­tu­ni­ties. But af­ter Arafat’s death in Novem­ber 2004 and Ab­bas’s elec­tion in Jan­uary 2005, he got one — a very real chance to put the Pales­tini­ans’ first post-Arafat leader to the test. But in­stead of step­ping in with both feet, Wash­ing­ton watched from the side­lines with its post-9/11 con­tempt for se­ri­ous diplo­macy. Ab­bas faded; Ha­mas rose. Of course, Fatah’s own cor­rup­tion and dys­func­tion was what elected Ha­mas in Jan­uary 2006 — but Wash­ing­ton and the Is­raelis helped.

Now the White House wants to act. And there are com­pelling rea­sons why. Deal­ing with the Arab-Is­raeli is­sue won’t elim­i­nate rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism, fix Iraq or turn dic­ta­tor­ships into democ­ra­cies — but it will help marginal­ize U.S. en­e­mies, em­bolden U.S. friends, at­tract those sit­ting on the fence and, above all, boost U.S. cred­i­bil­ity.

But I’m not hold­ing my breath. And with the 2008 elec­tion cy­cle in full swing, few lead­ers in the re­gion are ex­pect­ing much from a last rush of lame-duck diplo­macy, ei­ther. With lit­tle prospect of suc­cess, too many other pri­or­i­ties and a lin­ger­ing un­will­ing­ness to get tough with Arabs or Is­raelis, there’s not much chance for im­por­tant diplo­macy any­more.

If Bush still wanted to make a dif­fer­ence, how­ever, he might con­sider not one “road map” (the term for a U.S.-backed peace plan no­body in the re­gion be­lieves in af­ter years of U.S. ap­a­thy) but three. First, he should ap­point a high-level, fully em­pow­ered en­voy to di­rectly work Is­raeli-Pales­tinian is­sues on the ground, in­clud­ing an end to vi­o­lence and set­tle­ment ac­tiv­ity, eased re­stric­tions on Pales­tinian move­ment, eco­nomic re­vi­tal­iza­tion of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the re­lease of Cpl. Gi­lad Shalit, the Is­raeli sol­dier who has been held by Ha­mas since June 2006.

Sec­ond, Bush should en­cour­age key Arab states to out­line steps they’d take to­ward nor­mal­iz­ing re­la­tions with Is­rael as the cur­rent dead­lock eases, in­clud­ing a meet­ing soon be­tween Is­raeli and Saudi of­fi­cials. And fi­nally, Rice should cre­ate a dis­creet Is­raeli-Pales­tinian back chan­nel to probe whether any progress to­ward a last­ing deal on the big is­sues would be pos­si­ble if Wash­ing­ton fi­nally waded back in.

In 2002, Bush laid out a vi­sion of the only con­ceiv­able so­lu­tion — Is­rael and Pales­tine liv­ing side by side — but did lit­tle to pro­mote it. He now faces the very real prospect of watch­ing the best and only an­swer to the con­flict ex­pire on his watch. That would be a tragedy for the United States and its friends — and a bless­ing for its en­e­mies.





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