Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, January 28, 2011

Was George W. Bush really at fault?

During both the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections the Democratic nominees, John Kerry and Barack Obama, as well as several unsuccessful presidential candidates criticized Bush for not doing enough to make peace between Israel and the Arabs on his watch. In this post I'd like to examine if that criticism was justified, but I should also confess that during his term I signed several letters from Americans for Peace Now (APN) and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom calling for a more vigorous peace effort. Brit Tzedek is now the local grassroots arm of J Street.

Former State Dept. Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller in his 2008 book The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (Bantam) described how the outgoing Clinton administration briefed the incoming Bush administration on Camp David and the Al-Aksa Intifada and blamed it all on Yasir Arafat. Everyone from National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Clinton himself blamed the failure on Arafat--the Liar. Bush quickly concluded that he didn't want to waste time and precious political capital on a fruitless quest for peace. A month after Bush came to power, Ariel Sharon replaced Ehud Barak as prime minister in Jerusalem. Sharon thought that peace with the Palestinians was for subsequent generations, not his. This meant that as long as either of them remained as leader of his country, peace was unlikely. Bush until September 9, 2011 as a minority-vote president had very little political capital to spend and none to waste.

Sharon and Arafat spent the first eighteen months of the Bush administration trying to get rid of each other. The Al-Aksa Intifada soon deteriorated from conventional warfare to terrorism with suicide bombings rapidly escalating as Hamas's armed wing, the Izzadine al-Kassem Brigades, and Fatah's armed wing, the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, held a body bag competition. In March 2002 the IDF reinvaded the West Bank and gradually destroyed the terrorist infrastructure there. In June 2002 Bush made a presidential speech on the Middle East in which he declared Arafat persona non grata and openly invited the Palestinians to come up with a new leadership.

In 2002 as Bush organized the upcoming invasion of Iraq with British Prime Minister Tony Blair he was urged by the latter to follow Blair's example in Northern Ireland and wage a peace process as well as a war. An American peace initiative became the price for getting Britain's involvement in the war. It also became the price of support from Jordan's King Abdullah II. As a result, in 2003 Bush announced the road map for peace. He forced Arafat to create the post of prime minister in his administration and tried to force him to turn over all executive power to Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Arafat easily outmaneuvered both Abbas and Secretary of State Colin Powell and so Abbas soon resigned in frustration.

Arafat died of a mysterious ailment (some said poison, others said AIDS) in November 2004. Abbas became interim president until he was elected president in early 2005. But throughout 2005 Sharon was preoccupied with carrying out an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. This was the first major Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory since Lebanon in 2000 and the first voluntary withdrawal of Israeli settlers in Israeli history. Then, after the withdrawal, he was preoccupied with creating a new political party based on "liberal" Likudniks and a few Labor people, Kadima, which was launched in November 2005.

Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in January 2006 and was replaced as Kadima's leader by former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert. That month parliamentary elections were held in the Palestinian Authority at American insistence, despite Israeli warnings that Hamas would improve its status and maybe even win. But Bush equated democracy with elections and wanted to be the president to bring democracy to the Arabs and the Middle East. Hamas won the election and a majority in the Palestinian Assembly. Hamas refused to accept the preconditions that the U.S. and the European Union insisted on for being involved in the peace process. Sharon now had an official excuse not to deal with the Palestinians.

During Bush's second term from January 2005 to January 2009 his new secretary of state was his former National Security Advisor Condi Rice. Dr. Rice, a former Soviet specialist--trained by Madeleine Albright's father, was new to the Middle East. She had spent much of her time since 2001 dealing with Al Qaeda and with Iraq and Afghanistan. Largely because she was afraid of her legacy, she pushed for a new peace initiative in the Arab-Israeli conflict in late 2007.

The Annapolis Conference in November 2007, like the Madrid Conference of 1991, kickstarted a peace process. But it was a peace process that was doomed from the start. Ehud Olmert and his government had been fatally weakened by Israel's poor performance in the July 2006 Second Lebanon War, which Hezbollah began by kidnapping a pair of Israeli soldiers. Olmert had the first defense minister in decades who was not a former general or defense industry technocrat, but simply a civilian novice. In the summer of 2007 Hamas had driven Fatah out of Gaza and seized control of the strip after two decades of power struggle finally boiled over into open warfare. The result was that the Palestinians were deeply-divided politically between two rival parties and two rival territories. The Annapolis initiative got nowhere as the sand ran out on the Bush administration.

Clinton administration veterans and apologists are quick to explain Clinton's failure to negotiate a peace treaty in the Middle East in terms of the failings of Arafat, Netanyahu, Sharon, and even Barak. But they don't extend the same courtesy to Bush. If Bush can be faulted for not being vigorous enough in pushing for peace between Arafat's death and the Palestinian elections of January 2006, then Clinton can be faulted for not pushing hard enough for peace between Rabin's assassination in November 1995 and Netanyahu's election in June 1996 or during Barak's first year in office.

American presidents cannot handpick the Israeli, Palestinian and Syrian leaders that they have to work with in the Middle East. Their best bet is to wait until conditions make the situation ripe for peace and then use all the influence they have to conclude realistic agreements. In order to do this they must realize what is doable--the best is the enemy of the good in the Middle East as elsewhere. An American president whose campaign biography was Why Not the Best had to learn this the hard way in 1977. But once Carter had set his sights lower and on a realistic target--a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty rather than a comprehensive peace--he went flat out until he was successful.

Presidents cannot produce the conditions for peace with an inspiring speech, or what appears to be a successful war. They must wait until the parties themselves are forced by events to seek peace. American Jewish organizations wanting to relieve the discomfort of American Jews over the actions of Israel do not have this luxury. Like other politicians or political interest groups they must appear to be constantly in motion fighting the good fight.

There is another alternative suggested by Leon Hadar in his 2005 book Sandstorm. I will discuss this in my next post.

My last post was picked up and reproduced by Ralph Seliger at the MeretzUSA blog.

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