Bush plunges into the Middle East quagmire

The president's sudden, passionate intervention surprised everyone. But Israeli officials doubt he's in it for the long haul.

By Aluf Benn
Published June 11, 2003 7:36PM (EDT)

Last Wednesday, the long history of the Arab-Israeli conflict entered a new chapter, which could be called "the Aqaba process," after the Jordanian port and Red Sea resort city where it was launched. After more than two years of frozen negotiations and bloody fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, the leadership trio of U.S. President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and his new Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, announced a new initiative for calming the duel and moving toward the declared goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, sharing the Holy Land in peace and security. A few days later, despite Palestinian attacks that killed seven Israelis, Israel started to dismantle settlement outposts planted on the West Bank hilltops in the past two years. In another violent twist on Tuesday, Israel tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Abd-el-Aziz Rantisi, a top Hamas leader. The failed operation highlighted the explosive reality of the conflict and the many pitfalls that could befall it, but all the players involved tried to keep the peace process moving forward.

At first glance, it appears that Bush, Sharon and Abbas (known as Abu Mazen) are simply following in the footsteps of their predecessors. The same Red Sea scenery has been used many times before as the stage for Middle East summits and peace negotiations. Only a few miles away on the opposite beach from Aqaba, at the Egyptian resort of Taba, the previous Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in January 2001 -- a few days before Sharon was elected prime minister, pledging "never to negotiate under fire." As the fighting went on, Sharon decided to boycott Yasser Arafat, the veteran Palestinian leader, and called for his replacement as a precondition to resuming negotiations. Bush agreed and waited for the emergence of Abu Mazen before undertaking a major diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. Bush has not invented anything new. He simply used the old crisis-management recipe: summoning the leaders, staging a splendid photo op, reading nice words, and going back home.

In many aspects, however, Bush is trying to avoid the failures of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who sponsored the Oslo process throughout the 1990s until its fateful collapse at Camp David in July 2000. The Bushites decided not to allow the president's prestige to be taken hostage by local hatreds. They produced a strictly scripted event at the beach palace of Jordan's King Abdullah, drafting the speeches of Sharon and Abu Mazen in Washington, and allowing them only a limited margin for changes and corrections in the text. The outcome avoided any mention of contentious, dividing issues like the future borders of the Palestinian state, the fate of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, or the final arrangements in Jerusalem. Instead, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were told to be optimistic, emphasize whatever steps they might take to promote the process, and avert any attacks or tough demands from the other side.

To the wary spectators on the beach, mostly veteran reporters who have attended quite a few ceremonies like this in the past, the Aqaba event was refreshing in its modesty. There were no biblical citations or big promises for a new Middle East, only dry talking points, which fit the non-charismatic nature of Sharon and Abu Mazen. The leaders were confined to their pre-written statements; no questions from the press were allowed, to avoid any semblance of disagreement. Sharon said that forming a democratic Palestinian state was in Israel's interest -- a sober recognition from the leader of the Israeli right wing, the architect of settlement building who had opposed any concessions in the past. Now at the helm, bearing the heavy responsibility of national leadership, Sharon sounded more conciliatory as he promised to remove "unauthorized" settlement outposts and to give the future Palestinian state "territorial contiguity." It could have sounded like Sharon's revelation speech. But the Israeli leader is not a man of grand gestures. True to form, most of his remarks dealt with security and the need to eliminate terror, the main themes of Sharon's long, embattled career.

Abu Mazen renounced terror against Israelis anywhere and pledged to establish a democracy and the rule of law in Palestine. Responding to an old Israeli demand, he spoke to his people in Arabic, thus averting any possible claim about double talk. He also recognized the suffering of Jews throughout history, a brave new theme for an Arab leader.

The main Palestinian achievement in Aqaba was the implicit equation of terror and settlements, which both sides pledged to curb. Even Sharon tacitly recognized this, as he announced the immediate removal of outposts as a "down payment" and hinted at the future evacuation of settlements to create Palestinian contiguity, pending good behavior and the uprooting of terrorism. This "terror for settlements" deal marked a clear departure from Oslo, which demanded that Palestinians stop their violence but allowed Israel to continue building settlements. In fact, the number of settlers in the occupied territories has doubled since the Oslo signing ceremony in 1993.

From the Israeli viewpoint, the main achievement of Aqaba was the composition of the team at the podium. For the first time, the detested Arafat was absent from the picture, and so were European and U.N. leaders, who are viewed in Israel as pro-Arab, imbalanced interlocutors. The Aqaba process is an American monopoly. On Sunday, at the Likud party conference in Jerusalem, Sharon boasted that Israel was near victory in the conflict, citing the Palestinian leadership change as "the kernel of our victory."

Undoubtedly, the key player in Aqaba was the American president, who arrived from a long trip to Russia, Europe and a gathering of pro-American Arab leaders in the Egyptian resort Sharm El-Sheikh (Sharon refused to travel to Egypt, citing bad blood with the Mubarak regime, and Bush had to split his Mideast visit in two.) While both Sharon and Abu Mazen focused on their statement drafts, and all but avoided looking at the cameras, Bush sounded enthusiastic and looked straight ahead as he spoke about the "great and hopeful change" coming to the Middle East, with Saddam Hussein gone in Iraq and Abbas rising to promote "freedom and statehood for the Palestinian people." Bush pledged a stronger American involvement in the process from now on, and the ceremony was over, after only 24 minutes.

Clearly, it was Bush's intervention that brought the hesitant Palestinians and Israelis to Aqaba. He radiated determination in his closed-door meetings with the leaders. Sharon, who had met with the president seven times previously, was impressed by Bush's unprecedented "messianic fervor" as he embraced the role of leading Israelis and Palestinians toward a settlement. Sharon had heard Bush talk about peacemaking in the past, but his words were abstract. This time, he went above and beyond the formal talking points. The president used tough language on both sides, demanding action and rejecting any excuses.

After two years in which it avoided walking into the Middle East quagmire, the Bush administration has dramatically changed course in recent weeks. Three events coincided with the switch: Abu Mazen's appointment in March, the American victory in Iraq in April, and the president's decision to visit the troubled region in May. The depth of American involvement was remarkable, compared with the previous foot-dragging. Since the war ended, a stream of senior officials from Washington has called on Israeli and the Palestinian leaders, laying the ground for deeper American involvement. Bush adopted the "road map," a three-stage, three-year plan to calm the conflict, establish a Palestinian state, and reach final-status agreement, and he later forced Sharon to approve it in the Israeli cabinet. The United States will deploy a small monitoring team in the West Bank and Gaza to oversee Palestinian actions against terror and Israeli outpost dismantling. The whole process will be co-managed by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who will work with the Israelis, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who will work with the Arabs. At the president's order, both will make the matter "their highest priority."

The strength and timing of Bush's sudden intervention surprised many Israeli officials, even those who sensed the general direction American policy was taking. There was widespread assessment in Israel that on "the day after" Iraq, Washington might set its sights on the Israeli-Palestinian arena. But the consensus in Israeli government circles has been that Bush will refrain from putting real pressure on Sharon.

The president himself has not hidden his intention to force Sharon to the bargaining table. In early May, he told a group of Jewish leaders, "I saved Sharon's ass in Iraq. He owes me, and I'm going to collect," according to a participant who told Israeli officials in Jerusalem of the comment.

What caused Bush to take the plunge? The Israeli embassy in Washington reported several reasons: The president was riding a wave of success after Iraq; he was paying political debts to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and friendly Arab leaders, who have long called for American intervention; he was responding to the growing criticism of his noninvolvement; and the time slot, after the G8 conference in France, was convenient. Another factor might have been the growing American discontent with the unstable, violent scene in Iraq and the White House's urgent need to turn public and global attention elsewhere.

Sharon came out satisfied after his meeting with Bush. The president reassured him that he was strongly committed to Israel's security and adhered to his strong rejection of terror. According to the Israelis who were present, most of the tripartite meeting was devoted to security and to ending terror, and only a small part dealt with future Israeli concessions. Moreover, the Aqaba statements demand only a minor commitment from Sharon, namely the removal of "unauthorized" outposts -- about 15 sites in which a few mobile homes have been installed on almost empty hilltops, according to Israeli defense sources. Any more steps will have to wait for the other side's actions.

In the weeks before Aqaba, Sharon had devoutly stuck to his policy of avoiding any rift with Washington, Israel's main ally and backer. When Bush heeded a Palestinian demand and asked Sharon to accept the road map without delay, the Israeli leader agreed. After some maneuvering to overcome the opposition of his Likud ministers, he won Cabinet approval with a nice margin. The White House helped by finding a face-saving formula to recognize Israel's reservations and comments to the peace plan, without changing the road map's text. Sharon went even further than anyone expected, when he described Israel's rule over the 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as an "occupation" and said it was not in Israel's interests. (He backed off, however, when reminded by his legal advisors that Israel has never recognized the term "occupation," preferring the neutral "disputed.") Nevertheless, to translate Sharon's words into deeds, or even into promises to take action, American persuasion was needed.

In dealing with Sharon, Washington took a politically cautious approach. It asked Israel to help strengthen Abu Mazen's government and to dismantle a number of "illegal" outposts, avoiding more sensitive areas. The Israeli prime minister met twice with his old Palestinian acquaintance turned equal (a third meeting is planned for this week). His main proposal was gradual withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian areas reoccupied in the past two years, in return for Palestinian responsibility for security and counter-terrorism acts. Abu Mazen and his security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, asked for a few weeks to prepare their forces and reach an understanding with the main armed groups on a cease-fire. In the meantime, Israel would maintain its operations in the West Bank and Gaza.

But Sharon remains skeptical about Abu Mazen: He still isn't certain that Abu Mazen is a credible partner who will be able to deliver on security. The Israeli military believes that Abu Mazen and Dahlan are sincere in their desire to stop terror, but it fears that Arafat will be able to retain his power and block their efforts, through a de facto coalition with the main terror groups. Israel wants Abu Mazen to deal forcefully with terrorists, while he is seeking to quiet them with an agreed, timed armistice ("hudna") and favors gentle persuasion rather than armed confrontation as a tactic to get them to give up their weapons.

The first days after Aqaba gave every justification for skepticism. The Palestinian groups, appalled by Abu Mazen's conciliatory speech, which in their view gave away too much to Israel and failed to raise crucial Palestinian demands, suspended their armistice talks with him and launched new deadly attacks against Israelis, killing seven soldiers and civilians over the weekend. The Israeli army continued to pursue and kill suspected Palestinian terrorists. On Sunday, Sharon decided to keep the Aqaba process, including the outpost dismantling, going despite the shootings, even as he faced a hostile welcome at the Likud conference.

His old allies in the right wing and the settler movement turned against Sharon when he formally accepted the road map. The Israeli media compared him to Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon's old military buddy, "Mr. Security" turned into peacemaker, who was murdered by a right-wing Israeli in 1995 because of his concessions to the Palestinians. In fact, Sharon uses this vocal opposition to come across as a determined centrist and to show Washington the political price he has to pay for his moderation. The White House made clear on Sunday that recent attacks should not derail or impede the process.

The next day, Israel started to dismantle a first group of 15 outposts, mostly uninhabited. The settlers duly protested, but the military went on with the long-awaited operation. Minor as it may appear compared to the tough issues ahead, it was nevertheless the first clear sign that Sharon was prepared to fit actions to words.

And then, on Tuesday, Israel launched its failed attempt on Rantisi's life, citing the Hamas leader's involvement in terror attacks and attempts to destroy the Aqaba process. Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, had approved the operation a few weeks before, but put it on hold until after the summit. Washington reprimanded Israel, saying that Bush was "deeply troubled" by the operation. But the American criticism was mostly pro forma: "We're not happy about it, but it's not the end of the world," said an American official. The Palestinians issued a strong condemnation but kept their armistice attempts going, aided by the Egyptian intelligence minister, Omar Suleyman.

More than anything else, the post-summit events have shown that when left to their own devices, both the Israelis and Palestinians will return to their violent tit-for-tat habits. No American "babysitter" was left behind to follow up on Bush's visit, and the monitoring team is due to arrive only next Sunday.

All of which proves once again that any chances for progress depend on a great unknown -- Bush's commitment. While not getting involved in the details, as Clinton did, Bush has vowed to "ride herd" on the two sides. But it's one thing to arrange a nice gathering of leaders on the beach; keeping the momentum going while violence rages is a totally different story, as the White House has discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq. Political will and personal determination are crucial for the peace process to succeed, but they may prove insufficient or quickly erode when the road gets rougher. With Israel constantly receiving 50 to 60 "warm warnings" of possible suicide attacks, and about 100 violent events every week, the road could get rough indeed.

The consensus in the Israeli establishment is that Bush's activist posture will disappear with the first crisis. The Israeli embassy in Washington believes that by getting involved in the region the administration is striving to head off criticism at minimum risk and will therefore not take any daring steps. Israeli intelligence assessments share this view, predicting that Bush will avoid confronting Israel on the eve of his reelection campaign. "If Bush faces trouble, he will stop his intervention," said an Israeli official involved in the diplomatic exchange with Washington.

Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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