Peace in the Middle East: Now it's up to Bush

A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible -- but only if the president is willing to confront Ariel Sharon. If history is a guide, he won't.

By Gary Kamiya
Published February 10, 2005 1:13AM (EST)

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced an end to four years of bitter fighting, even the most hardened observer could be forgiven for daring to hope that this time, it really might work.

Two new developments have broken the bloody Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and inspired optimism that a lasting peace could be at hand: Sharon's so-called disengagement plan, in which Israel plans to withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip and a few northern West Bank settlements, and the death of Yasser Arafat. But these developments are Janus-faced: They give just as much reason for doubt as hope. Unless the Bush administration is prepared to make a complete about-face in the almost totally pro-Israel policy of its first four years and aggressively push for a comprehensive peace deal in which final-status issues are dealt with from the beginning, this optimistic day will end up in the trash can with all the other summits and peace plans and meetings that promised an end to the world's most dangerous conflict.

With the unreliable Arafat gone, the Palestinians exhausted, the Israelis apparently prepared to trade land for peace, and the Bush administration in desperate need of a tangible achievement in the Middle East, this moment presents a rare opportunity for peace. Unfortunately, nothing in Bush's first term inspires confidence that he or his administration has the vision, wisdom or courage to seize it.

Time and again, Middle East peace plans have come to grief because they got bogged down in "transitional periods," "interim steps" and "confidence-building measures" and failed to deal forthrightly with the real issues. The disengagement plan and the death of Arafat are momentous events, but they have not changed those issues -- or the positions of the two sides.

Sharon is willing to part with Gaza, but he has no intention of pulling out of any but a small part of the West Bank. (Yes, it is always possible that Sharon will radically change his stripes and accept a viable, contiguous Palestinian state more or less on the 1967 borders with a capital in East Jerusalem and some symbolic provision for a right of return. But it is about as likely as Abu Mazen becoming a Zionist.) He is framing the cease-fire almost exclusively in terms of Israel's security, ignoring the political dimension. Abbas (Abu Mazen) has persuaded the militant Palestinian groups to declare a cease-fire, but his political demands are identical to Arafat's, and unless Israel takes real steps to meet those demands, the cease-fire will not hold. The present peace is therefore extremely delicate: It requires a delicate mutual calibration and coordination of concessions and demands, with the United States monitoring both sides, not allowing outbreaks of violence to derail it and, above all, keeping its eye constantly on the endgame.

That endgame is no secret: In one form or another, it has been at the heart of the Camp David plan, the Taba talks and last year's back-channel Geneva Accords. A contiguous Palestinian state on almost all the West Bank, with minor territorial swaps to allow some of the large Jewish settlements to be incorporated into Israel; a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, with provision for Jewish access to the holy sites; and some face-saving compromise on the Palestinian refugees that does not alter the demographic nature of the Jewish state. This plan, with an international military presence to prevent terror attacks and massive aid to help the Palestinian economy and resettle the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who will not be allowed to return to their former homes in what is now Israel, will end the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. And everybody knows it.

So why hasn't it happened?

Because only the United States can make it happen -- and because George W. Bush has taken Ariel Sharon's side to a degree that has shocked the world and surprised even Americans used to their country's pro-Israel default button.

In retrospect, it's easier to understand how it happened. Even before 9/11, Bush was eager to please his fervently pro-Israel evangelical Christian base and siphon off Jewish votes from the Democrats. Himself a devout born-again Christian, he had religious and emotional reasons to favor Israel. He wanted to take a different path from the despised Bill Clinton, who had gambled and lost by trying to broker a last-minute peace deal. He was aware that his father lost the U.S. election after slapping Yitzhak Shamir over loan guarantees. He was under no pressure from Congress, which rubber-stamps pro-Israeli legislation. He was surrounded by hard-line Likudnik neocons like Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, as well as nationalist, pro-Israel hawks like Dick Cheney (who once said that Arafat should be hanged) and Donald Rumsfeld (who departed from official U.S. policy by referring to the "so-called occupied territories").

Then 9/11 happened, and Bush really got religion. If he had ever considered, even briefly, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be a classic case of asymmetrical warfare, with terrorism being the weapon of the weak; that the Israeli occupation and the settlements, not just Palestinian fanaticism and intransigence, might have played a role in the continued violence; that this conflict was at the heart of the confrontation between Islam and America -- those thoughts flew right out of his mind. Politics, history, grievance, context -- those murky matters, which make it impossible to sort out absolute God-given right from absolute evil, were never his strong suit anyway. With the mighty prophetic certainty of a Lear, he smote and divided the world into two categories: terrorists and freedom fighters. The Palestinian militants now became indistinguishable from al-Qaida. Bush and Sharon were embarked on the same crusade -- fighting evil. And that crusade against evil (justified by a bogus self-defense argument) ultimately led Bush to invade Iraq -- with its neocon backers waving the banner "The road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad."

This history hardly affords much reason to believe that Bush will be prepared to do what is necessary to broker a lasting peace: force Sharon to give up the West Bank -- and give up his lifelong dream of smashing the Palestinians' political aspirations. The odds remain dauntingly long, but there are a few reasons to believe that Bush could surprise everyone.

First, it's his second term. Because of what is politely called "domestic political constraints," U.S. presidents are far more likely to make bold moves in the Middle East during a second term. Bush no longer has to worry about being reelected or running afoul of Congress or the Israeli lobby.

Second, Iraq -- and the entire region -- is a mess. The neocon dream that rolling up Iraq would weaken the Palestinians and strengthen Israel proved to be a nonstarter. Even more important, as the Strategic Defense Report, among many other studies, concluded, Bush's Iraq invasion, far from weakening the Islamist radicals, has greatly strengthened them. The elections were a feel-good story and provided some inspiring TV moments during Bush's State of the Union speech, but the future of Iraq remains highly problematic, with civil war still a possibility.

It is at least arguable that Bush knows these things and wants to rectify them or at least balance them with some good news.

Third, certain personnel decisions indicate a new realism about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fire-breathing anti-Oslo ideologue Doug Feith, who helped push through the bogus intel that justified the Iraq war, is departing as No. 3 at Defense, and Condoleezza Rice has appointed trade representative Robert Zoellick, a realist, as her deputy at State, a defeat for hard-liners who wanted an ideologue installed. (Cheney reportedly wanted über-hawk John Bolton to get the job.) Rice could end up being in effect a Powell clone on Mideast policy (a big if), but one who unlike Powell has Bush's confidence and ear. The ongoing FBI investigation into possible spying by the legendarily powerful Israel lobby, AIPAC, may also have weakened the neocons: According to a recent piece by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "more than a half-dozen officials in the Bush administration who are apparently suspected of leaking classified information to AIPAC have had to retain defense lawyers."

Fourth, Arafat is gone. Bush, like Sharon, demonized the enigmatic Palestinian leader and refused to deal with him. Bush, famous for personalizing politics, has a far better opinion of Abu Mazen.

Finally, Bush has clearly empowered Rice to push Sharon not to derail Abu Mazen's chances before he gets out of the gate. The United States has already leaned on Israel to stop its policy of seizing "absentee" Palestinian land in East Jerusalem (a policy advocated by that great champion of democratic governance and Bush reading-list favorite Natan Sharansky) and is clearly interested in at least getting the peace process started.

But just how much weight to give these factors is uncertain. Skeptics point to the fact that Rice never mentioned the so-called road map during her visit to the region, which they see as a sign that Bush is not seriously engaged. (However, in the current issue of Bitterlemons, a forum for Israeli and Palestinian discussion, Israeli liberal Yossi Alpher argues that ignoring the road map is actually wise at this point and that it's better to let the process play out.) Then there is Bush's momentous April 14 letter to Sharon that essentially reversed the long-standing American condemnation of Israeli settlements, saying that "new realities on the ground" have to be taken into account. To say the least, that letter does not inspire confidence that Bush will be an honest broker.

One could go on and on amassing pros and cons. But at bottom, trying to assess what Bush will do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves weighing his history, his beliefs and ideologies. Do his track record as the most pro-Israeli president in history, his long association with pro-Israel neoconservatives, and his own religious beliefs and political disposition mean he will continue to embrace Sharon's vision? If so, then the entire peace process that is now getting underway is just a sham, intended to provide domestic and international political cover and certain to blow up sooner or later. (Skeptics can also argue that Bush had no choice but to go along with the current peace process: The death of Arafat forced his hand.)

The problem with this assumption is that Sharon's vision is so manifestly at odds with U.S. interests that it's hard to imagine why Bush would embrace it. Only the most rabid ideologues (who have, unfortunately, been in charge of U.S. foreign policy for the last four years) could ignore the fact that letting the Israeli-Palestinian crisis fester is the stupidest and most self-destructive thing America could do. But it is hard to know how to evaluate the strategic thinking of those who decided that the best way to deal with Islamic extremists, and the Arab-Muslim world in general, would be by defending Sharon at every turn and then invading an Arab state.

If Bush is really determined to stick with Sharon to the end, his thinking might be something like this: At the end of the day, I will have rolled up or neutralized the only three states that can really hurt Israel and help the Palestinians: Iraq, Syria and Iran. The famous, overrated "Arab street" will squawk but do nothing. Cut off from outside help, the Palestinians will split into two camps: those willing to take the Bantustans I will offer them, and the rejectionists. There will be a civil war, and at the end the survivors will be too weak to do anything but take the Bantustans. The Arab-Muslim world will be angry and humiliated, but the great democracies we have created in the region will offer another way and they'll get over it. There may be a terror attack or two, but they could happen anyway.

This is a frightening strategic vision -- but it is the one that until now the Bush administration has followed.

In fact, it is unlikely that Bush has anything so hawkish, pro-Sharon or even coherent in mind. More likely, he's going along for the peace ride now, happy to look like a good guy in the Middle East for once, hoping that some solution will magically appear that will resolve the problem later with both sides happy and without his having to confront Sharon.

That hope-for-the-best attitude is understandable. But if that is the best that Bush can do, it will not work. A passive, reactive U.S. stance will inevitably lead to the end of the cease-fire, to more Israeli and Palestinian deaths, to the continuation of a tragedy that has seared the souls of two peoples. And it will almost certainly be the end of the possibility of a two-state solution in Palestine. And with that lost horizon, more Arab despair, more Muslim rage, more U.S. alienation from the rest of the world, more fundamentalist fanaticism, more danger of horror and death in Paris, or New York, or Jerusalem, or Los Angeles, or Ramallah, or Chicago.

It may seem mean-spirited, with hopes for peace alive for the first time in years, to demand that Bush get to work. But if he doesn't, the moment will pass -- and what will follow will be a history we already know.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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