Will Bush take real risks for Mideast peace?

Former U.S. ambassador and diplomat Martin Indyk hails the president's recent engagement, saying he's "becoming -- dare I say it -- like President Clinton."

Published May 23, 2003 8:37PM (EDT)

On Friday, the moribund Middle East peace process finally showed some signs of life. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had previously rejected the so-called road map to peace, reversed course and said Israel would now accept it. Sharon changed his mind after the United States assured him it would address Israeli objections to the plan, which was drawn up by the Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia).

Despite the news, it's difficult not to feel a sense of deep fatigue, even despair, about the prospects for peace. In what is now a staggering 32 months since the current intifada erupted, chaos and destruction have become the two people's daily bread. The latest of many failed attempts to broker a deal has been greeted with an onslaught of Palestinian suicide attacks and aggressive Israeli military actions and reactions. Extremists on both sides are unmoved: Hamas and other Palestinian hard-liners continue to carry on the armed struggle against the Jewish state they seek to destroy, while right-wingers in the Israeli government -- including Tourism Minister Benny Elon, who calls for the "voluntary transfer" of all Palestinians to Jordan -- look to fully annex the occupied territories.

Even so, now is a critical moment -- and opportunity -- for the Bush administration to jump-start the peace process. On the heels of its swift military victory in Iraq, the White House now has the strategic and political capital it claimed it would need to broker real change in the region. Moreover, the very desperation of the present conditions on the ground may help bridge the gap: The Israeli economy is mired in the deepest malaise of its 55-year history, and what's left of the shattered Palestinian infrastructure is teetering on total collapse. An unusual twist of events Tuesday saw hundreds of Palestinians protesting against their own militants in the town of Beit Hanoun, fed up with the crippling consequences of Israeli reprisal brought on by rocket attacks launched from the area. The point is that both sides are psychologically exhausted, and perhaps vulnerable enough to take some extraordinary steps -- with the necessary leadership. The immediate time frame then, however narrow and fragile, could prove the singular chance for Bush to deliver on his June 2002 promise to Tony Blair, and the rest of the world.

On Thursday, Salon spoke with foreign policy expert Martin Indyk about the White House approach to the newly swelling crisis, and about what it will take to bring palpable change to a seemingly impossible situation. Indyk knows this grueling turf intimately; he served as both ambassador to Israel and as assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs in the Clinton administration. He's now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Indyk sees great urgency in light of the latest escalation, and perhaps signs of life in a president who may finally be prepared to act with conviction. But without U.S. dedication and a willingness to take risks, Indyk says, the process will fail again.

Assuming the region is at a critical crossroads with the Saddam regime out of the picture, is the White House addressing the Israeli-Palestinian debacle with the necessary gravity? If Bush and the Quartet are ostensibly behind the road map, why does much of the world already see it as doomed?

The problem that the proponents of the road map are facing is precisely the same problem that every other initiative has faced since the intifada broke out, whether it was the Mitchell recommendations or the Tenet cease-fire plan or the Zinni initiatives. As soon as something gets launched, the terrorists launch their own counterattack against the initiatives through these waves of suicide bombings designed to undermine the authority of the Palestinians on the one hand, and to provoke the Israelis into retaliation on the other. This drags both parties back into the violence, which then dooms the initiative. That's precisely what we face now.

As you said, we've watched the Mitchell, Tenet and Zinni efforts all lead nowhere ... why should the road map turn out any different?

I think there are two reasons. One is that the strategic context has changed as a result of the toppling of Saddam Hussein; the placing of states that sponsor Palestinian terrorism, such as Iran and Syria, on the defensive; and strengthening those like the Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, who says there is no military solution to this conflict, that the only way is through negotiations.

The change in strategic context combines with the exhaustion factor. The Israelis and Palestinians are exhausted by two and a half years of conflict, the immense human toll as well as the economic disaster that has been visited on both peoples ... which makes them more amenable to a political initiative.

That change in the environment, perhaps a ripening of the environment for an initiative, combines with a change in President Bush himself. For two years he was determined not to get engaged in an effort to stop this conflict and get the parties back on the path toward reconciliation. Now, after the war, under the influence of Tony Blair and because I think [Bush is] intrigued by the fact that the Palestinians did produce a new leader after his insistence on it, he is now prepared to engage.

American engagement is what's been missing. A serious presidential engagement has been a missing ingredient for the last two and a half years.

What's the mood like in Washington following the latest wave of suicide bombings and Israeli crackdown? Is there a real sense of urgency? Or, with the level of animosity and distrust between the two peoples as high as it's been, is there a deeper diplomatic fatigue setting in?

I think it's a combination of great weariness and understanding that there's a high risk of failure here. But what's changed in the White House is that the president is in some ways becoming -- dare I say it -- like President Clinton, who believed that it was better to try and fail in the context of making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, than not to try at all. Up till now, President Bush has taken the view that it's better not to try, than to try and fail. His phone call to Abu Mazen, his request that Abu Mazen send an envoy to meet with him, which he did yesterday, is his first real engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. It is, in fact, the first time he's actually met with a Palestinian leader.

On Wednesday the White House said Bush may travel to the region during the next few weeks for the first time as president. How important is Bush's direct involvement at this point, and what specifically must he accomplish in the immediate term?

His involvement is critical. On its own it's not enough, because what is absolutely essential is that the Palestinian Authority take steps to stop the terrorism on the Palestinian side, and that the Israelis take steps to reciprocate by easing the pressure on the Palestinians and pulling the army back.

However, without the president's engagement, if they are left to their own devices, they cannot get out of this abyss. We've seen that time and time again. There is too much hatred, too much mistrust, too little capacity on the Palestinian side, and too little tolerance for terrorism on the Israeli side, for them to be able to do it on their own.

The secretary of state has engaged in half-hearted ways, and that has not been enough. The president's engagement, with all of the authority and prestige of his office, and the influence that he commands as a result of what he has just done in Iraq, can make all the difference in the world.

Is Bush himself the only one who can push Sharon to take the necessary steps?

Look, it's not a question of pushing Sharon. I think that is a wrong-headed concept. The president has to put his arms around both Abu Mazen and Ariel Sharon, and move them forward. This concept of arms around them, rather than beating them over the head, is a critical distinction. He needs to give both sides reassurance that he will be with them. That if one side takes a step, he will make sure that the other side takes a reciprocal step.

For example, at this moment he has engaged with Abu Mazen, urging him to take steps against the terrorists, telling him that he will have the president's tangible support if he does so and, at the same time, that the president will get Sharon to continue to exercise restraint in the face of these terrorist attacks, not to retaliate.

But does Abu Mazen have the power to decisively stop the terrorist violence, as a first step, or is Arafat still calling the shots? It's hard to imagine the latest deluge of suicide attacks being carried out without at least the tacit support of the Palestinian Authority. And just today Abu Mazen was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "We do not do anything without [Arafat's] approval."

Well, Abu Mazen is absolutely clear in his opposition to terrorism, has been long before he became prime minister. And his speech was absolutely clear in that regard, that there is no military option, that there will only be one authority, that it's unacceptable to have armed militias -- they will be disarmed and the terrorism will be stopped according to the requirements of the road map, which he has accepted.

So there is a will on the part of the new prime minister. What is lacking is a capacity, particularly in the West Bank, where the terrorists are coming from, for him to crack heads and to arrest people and to stop this from happening. He has that capacity in Gaza, and that's why both the president and Prime Minister Sharon are telling him, "Look, start in Gaza. Because that will send a signal to the Israelis that you're serious, and it'll send a signal to Hamas and Islamic Jihad that you're serious. But start somewhere. Do something."

Arafat has no interest in seeing Abu Mazen succeed in this effort, because his success will come at Arafat's expense. Arafat will then be more and more sidelined. So Arafat is doing his level best to undermine Abu Mazen's authority.

Would you go as far as saying that Arafat is behind the latest terrorist attacks?

Look, I don't know that he's behind the attacks. What has been clear over the last two and a half years is that he has not been prepared to take a stand against them and to stop them. And he doesn't have an interest in Abu Mazen doing that and gaining the credit for it. So he is seeking to undermine him, seeking to prevent him from restructuring the security services, seeking to retain control ... at the same time that the terrorist organizations are defying Abu Mazen's authority. So the combination of the two makes it very difficult for Abu Mazen to succeed.

There is growing suspicion in the world press of Sharon's motives. On Monday an editorial in the largest Spanish daily, El Pais, declared the suicide bombers are Sharon's "best allies against a peace he does not want." What's your sense of this? Do you believe Sharon really accepts the goals of the road map "in principle," as he reportedly said in his meeting last Saturday with Abu Mazen, or is Sharon comfortably obfuscating, knowing that the White House and Congress overwhelmingly support his hard-line stance?

Well, it's a complicated answer. I think there are three Sharons competing for the mind of the prime minister. One is Sharon the general, who believes in the efficacy of force, who believes in dealing with the terrorist threat through force, and who would like to get rid of Arafat and the Oslo process. There's Sharon the politician, who, when he had a coalition government, had to keep the Labor Party in the government and therefore was prepared to moderate the views of Sharon the general for the purpose of coalition politics. But now he has a right-wing coalition. He's under pressure from the right-wing parties and the settlers, and so [now] Sharon the politician is more like Sharon the general.

But there's a third Sharon. Sharon the statesman -- or the would-be statesman. He's the man who talks about painful concessions, who talks about evacuating settlements. Who understands that it is a strategic imperative for the Jewish state that no daylight appear between Israel and the United States in these very difficult circumstances that Israel faces. Sharon the would-be statesman is a man who did not want to put the army back into the West Bank and Gaza, as Sharon the general did in Lebanon and got them stuck there for 10 years. He's the man who came up with the idea of a Palestinian state with provisional borders 10 years ago...

Sharon himself came up with...

... yes, he himself was the author of that idea, and [he] has accepted the principles of the road map -- that is to say: phase 1, reciprocal steps to stop the violence; phase 2, establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders; phase 3, establishment of a two-state solution, according to the Bush vision. In circumstances where he understands that the president wants to move on this, Sharon the would-be statesman will adjust accordingly, will find a way to accommodate the president's requirements. Because he doesn't want any daylight to show between them.

So it's a question of which Sharon will prevail. When he meets with the president -- on the basis of my knowing [Sharon] and working with him for many years -- I believe it will be Sharon the would-be statesman who will respond if the president makes clear to him that he intends to move forward on this vision of creating a Palestinian state and resolving the conflict through a two-state solution.

It's widely believed that a peaceful two-state solution is the key to stabilizing the entire region. Do you think the White House believes this in earnest, and that Bush is willing to take real political risks to make it happen? What is Bush's true degree of personal commitment?

I think the president is very committed to his vision. He's a man of big ideas, and this is a big idea, a democratic Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel. What the president hasn't yet shown is the commitment to do the hard work necessary to make that vision a reality.

His engagement this week with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers is the first indication that he might be serious. If there's going to be a summit where he brings those two leaders together, that will be a much clearer indication that he means what he says when he says, "I'm personally committed to this, and I'm going to work as hard at this as Tony Blair worked on Northern Ireland." That remains to be tested.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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