Try, Try, Try Again: Bush's Peace Plans
by Daniel Mandel, October 26, 2004
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Middle East Quarterly*
Nearly four years have elapsed since the Oslo process (1993-2000) between Israelis and Palestinians foundered in bloodshed. Over that period, two U.S. administrations have tried to forge policies that would reduce the violence and point toward a solution to the conflict.
It has not been a single-minded pursuit. Since September 11, 2001, the prime focus of Washington has been the management of unprecedented U.S. military interventions in the region, which removed regimes from power in Afghanistan and Iraq. The notion of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the key to regional stability has been replaced by the war on terror and the insistence on reform and democratization as preconditions of peace. Still, U.S. policy has evolved in important ways. The Bush vision, the roadmap, the U.S. support for a Palestinian state, U.S. dismissal of the so-called Palestinian "right of return," and acknowledgment of Israel's prerogative to remain in parts of the West Bank—these are all significant evolutions in U.S. policy. The United States is not out of the woods in Iraq, and presidential election years are off-season for new Middle East initiatives. But it is not difficult to imagine a post-election scenario of invigorated U.S. diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
The United States sent these four successive messages to the region over the past four years:
Each of these messages added another layer to the existing strata of U.S. positions, commitments, and policies. The official U.S. interpretation is that these four messages complement one another. In fact, in many important respects they contradict one another. If and when the United States revitalizes its diplomacy, a battle will commence over just what constitutes the legacy of the last four years. This article is a primer on the last four years of policymaking—what has worked, what has never been tried, what has failed, and where the United States should go from here.
I. Cycle of Violence
The eruption of fighting at Yasir Arafat's behest in late September 2000—while talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) on a comprehensive peace agreement were still underway—presented the United States with a dilemma. Should it persist with mediation aimed at a full peace settlement or work to facilitate a cease-fire? The Clinton administration chose the former, and it adopted the studied neutrality deemed necessary for the effort. Administration officials avoided implicating Arafat in the terrorism; issued seemingly evenhanded condemnations of the "cycle of violence" tarring Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counterterrorism with the same brush; and welcomed putative cease-fires and agreements that never actually took hold.
In January 2001, George W. Bush succeeded Bill Clinton in the White House. The new administration made a modest shift in policy, from mediation aimed at peace to facilitation aimed at a cease-fire and restoring negotiations. Yet even this modest goal proved unattainable. The Mitchell Plan (May 2001) and its proposed implementation in the Tenet schedule (July 2001) failed at the first fence: Arafat never instituted the cease-fire that would have started the process of military disengagement and resumed diplomacy. During this time, the United States continued to issue evenhanded calls for restraint on both sides. As before, Israeli retaliatory action was condemned in the same breath as the terrorism that produced it, though President Bush and his subordinates also began to cite Arafat's responsibility to end the hostilities.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and particularly after the speedy success of the Afghan campaign, the Bush administration finally discarded the "cycle of violence" mantra and shed some of its inhibitions about endorsing Israel's right to act in self-defense. The United States showed more sympathy for Israel striking at terrorists and their war-making capacity. But the administration stopped short of holding Arafat responsible for the terrorism or endorsing the particulars of Israel's actual military response, such as targeted killings. Additionally, the State Department continued to pull punches in its periodic assessments of Palestinian compliance on fighting terrorism, under the rubric of "national security interests." This amounted to concealing evidence of Palestinian malfeasance that would have necessitated a change of policy towards the PA.
Simultaneous with indulgence for Israeli action and Palestinian inaction on terrorism, Bush appeared before the United Nations to declare explicitly for the first time that the United States favored a two-state solution, Israel and a state to be called Palestine, in a final settlement. But that settlement could be reached only with the elimination of incitement and terrorism.
In sum, Washington insisted, called on, admonished, and implored Arafat to meet his obligations but never indicated what would occur if he failed to meet them. The furthest the administration went was to express "disappointment" with his conduct.
II. Bold Vision
On June 24, 2002, Bush announced a fresh policy. In a landmark speech, he wrote off the Palestinian leadership as irremediably tainted by terrorism and corruption. He called for a new leadership to disband the terrorist groups and institute democratic, market-oriented reforms. In Bush's vision, Palestinian dismantling of terror groups would precede Israeli withdrawals; Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza would then be halted; and Arab states would work actively to fight terror and cut off its sources of funding. A provisional Palestinian state would be created once Palestinians had installed a new, democratic leadership.
It was a bold vision, and one that accorded perfectly with Bush's zero-tolerance of terrorism's facilitators and his belief in the primacy of reform and democracy. But as the summer wore on, and the invasion of Iraq loomed, Bush's foreign policy team thought the vision too bold. The United States needed to contain Arab ferment over the looming confrontation with Saddam Hussein. And as a sop to the Europeans and Russians, the administration had already promised to involve them in a multilateral initiative. The result was the "Quartet," a U.S. partnership with the European Union, the Russian Federation, and the U.N.
The Quartet produced its first joint communiqué on April 10, 2002. This and subsequent communiqués (July 16, 2002; September 17, 2002) veered this way and that, away from the new Bush policy. Ultimately, on October 15, 2002, with U.S. acquiescence, the Quartet's vision crystallized in a document entitled "Elements of a Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."
Ariel Sharon was reelected prime minister in Israel on January 28, 2003, and the Palestinian legislature—with Arafat's consent—appointed Mahmud ‘Abbas (Abu Mazen) as Palestinian "prime minister" on March 18, 2003. The Quartet decided that conditions were ripe for release of the roadmap, which they officially unveiled on April 30, 2003.
The roadmap envisioned a three-phase schedule of steps designed to lead to an Israeli-Palestinian peace and the creation of a Palestinian state at some undetermined date in 2005. It deviated from the Bush plan of June 24, 2002, in four fundamental respects:
On any reading, the roadmap subverted the Bush vision of a democratic, post-Arafat Palestinian leadership. It proposed Israeli concessions without insisting on verified Palestinian measures to end terror and incitement.
Although the Bush administration has occasionally hinted otherwise, it has publicly insisted that the Bush vision and the roadmap are actually one and the same. In this spirit, the United States found itself cheering the political processes within the Palestinian legislature that installed Mahmud ‘Abbas as Palestinian "prime minister." He would personify the new leadership of the Bush vision. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell commented: "I was impressed by the action of that body. … We would have preferred to see an even greater authority invested in the prime minister, but it is nevertheless, a positive." Three weeks later, Bush affirmed, "I'm pleased with the new leader of the Palestinian Authority." In officially unveiling the roadmap on April 30, Bush noted that Palestinians had taken "important steps toward the creation of an empowered, accountable office of prime minister."
Yet, it emerged quickly that Mahmud ‘Abbas and his cabinet were not the new leadership envisioned by Bush in his June speech. During Powell's May 2003 visit to the region, and in his presence, ‘Abbas dodged a direct question on what he intended to do with Palestinian extremists. This did not deter Powell from opining that he had been "impressed by [‘Abbas's] understanding of the responsibilities that he now has," nor from later claiming that the ‘Abbas team of Salam Fayyad, Muhammad Dahlan, and Nabil Sha‘ath (all onetime or present Arafat loyalists) represented new "responsible leadership." Queried in an interview whether ‘Abbas had the ability to "get tough" with the terror groups, Powell responded, "He is planning to get tough."
In fact, ‘Abbas never got tough. Instead of moving to dismantle the terror groups, he sought to negotiate a three-month cease-fire with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He thought this would produce irresistible pressure on Israel to reciprocate with concessions on the ground—without dismantling the terror groups. The United States went along with the ploy, and Israel commenced dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts, withdrew forces from Bethlehem and Gaza, removed assorted roadblocks, and also released some Palestinian prisoners.
This raised the inevitable question of whether ‘Abbas was in the driver's seat at all, to which Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, responded,
Quizzed on whether the United States would tolerate Arafat occupying a ceremonial role in a future Palestinian state, Bush answered elliptically that institutions matter more and that the "issue is bigger than any single person."
In short, there was a marked unwillingness to acknowledge that ‘Abbas might be no more than tactically at odds with Arafat and, in any case, powerless to oppose him whatever his intentions. In simply reaffirming the commitment to working with him, Washington was permitting the all-important prerequisite of new Palestinian leadership to slip by the wayside. Indeed, the administration began to consider resuming direct aid to the PA on the basis that the ‘Abbas team was reliably preventing funds from reaching terrorists. Washington subsequently provided $20 million for the PA. As late as August 2, 2003, the Bush administration was still commending ‘Abbas for his determination to dismantle terror groups, even though he had not lifted a finger against them.
Even after further suicide bombings against Israeli civilians in Rosh Ha‘ayin and Ariel, Powell was insisting that "the roadmap is in place"  and that "we will not be stopped by bombs." Bush continued to emphasize the need for the PA to "dismantle and destroy" the terror organizations. But on August 21, in the absence of results, Powell effectively conceded that Arafat remained in decisive control. He publicly called upon
There could scarcely have been a more conclusive proof of the subterfuge of the roadmap, that merely shuffling Arafat loyalists could produce a Palestinian leadership capable of ending terrorism. The United States had mortgaged Bush's vision to this mirage. Clearly, Arafat had not been sidelined by the appointment of a non-plenipotentiary "prime minister" dependent on his approval and acquiescence. Nonetheless, administration officials continued to talk of a "new Palestinian leadership … emerging that understands—and says, in Arabic and English—that terror is not a means to Palestinian statehood."
The ‘Abbas premiership never produced even a putative cease-fire, while 87 Israeli civilians were killed and 436 wounded in further acts of terror. ‘Abbas—lacking actual control over the armed Palestinian forces and the means to dismantle terror groups, simultaneously powerless and under pressure to produce results—resigned on September 7, 2003.
How did Washington respond to this failure? It proved unwilling to confront the fact that its underlying assumption of working with a new, independent Palestinian leadership had been a mirage. ‘Abbas had now resigned; his place merely had to be taken by another. Powell spoke as though Palestinians would resort to purely democratic processes to fill the void. "We are not selecting candidates for the position of Palestinian Prime Minister," he declared upon news of the resignation. "This is something that the Palestinian people have to do through the Palestinian Legislative Council."
With the appointment of Ahmad Qureia as "prime minister" on September 10, 2003, Bush stressed the importance of fighting terror as the single most important commitment each party could bring to the processes of peace making. To that end, the administration emphasized the need for the new "prime minister" to exercise actual authority over security forces. But in the absence of any alteration in the Palestinian power structure, this was impossible, and it has yet to happen.
For most of 2003, Israel watched the roadmap drive out the Bush plan. This probably contributed to the decision of Ariel Sharon to propose his own interim solution to the impasse with the Palestinians. The plan, first bruited by Sharon in a speech in December 2003 and elaborated in a subsequent interview in the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, envisaged a withdrawal of the Israeli civilian population and military personnel in Gaza. Sharon understood that the Palestinians were likely to interpret such a unilateral concession as a victory, emboldening them further. So he sought substantive political gains to offset the disadvantages. Those were to be provided by Washington.
Bush delivered. On April 14, praising Sharon's "historic and courageous actions," Bush endorsed Sharon's plan and offered significant assurances in return for its implementation. The most innovative aspect of Bush's response to the Sharon plan was to depart from half a century of U.S. obeisance to the legally baseless and practically unfeasible Palestinian "right of return." Previously, the United States had avoided confronting this claim, deeming it an issue for final status negotiations between the parties. Washington had declined to offer an authoritative opinion on it. Bush, in his speech, laid out a different approach:
Moreover, Bush determined that complete Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines was no longer realistic:
Bush repeated these assurances to Sharon in a letter of the same day.
The furor over the "right of return" in the Arab world probably accounts for a subtle elaboration in the administration position in Bush's subsequent statement on May 6, during a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, in which he declared that all final status issues remain to be negotiated between the parties. Queried on his stance, Bush insisted that the refugee issue, as a final status issue, would still need to be negotiated. But he added that the creation of a Palestinian state would provide the solution.
The United States also reconciled itself to Israel's determination to construct a security barrier—roughly along the 1949 lines separating Israel from the West Bank but also encompassing parts of the latter. In 2003, U.S. officials had expressed concern as to its route, particularly its penetration of the West Bank at various points. In endorsing Sharon's engagement plan, Bush also accepted the security barrier on the proviso that it be temporary rather than permanent and thus without prejudice to negotiation of future borders with a Palestinian state. He also gave Israel discretion over its route, providing it "take into account, consistent with security needs, its impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities."
The Bush administration now declared Sharon's plan to be part of the roadmap. On that basis, British prime minister Tony Blair lent his support to it, and so did Egyptian president Husni Mubarak. In fact, "roadmap" in daily usage had become an infinitely elastic term, capable of incorporating any initiative that seemed to hold some promise. Strong presidential support for the disengagement plan partly accounted for its passage by the Sharon cabinet on June 6 by a vote of 14 to 7. It awaits implementation.
Which Way Now?
On one level, U.S. policy shifted from performance to process. A performance-based approach is driven by actions and is favored by Israel, which rejects concessions unless the Palestinians take actual measures to defeat terrorism. A process-based approach is driven by timetables and is much favored by the Palestinians, who seek to make gains through the mere passage of time.
The divergence between the performance-based Bush vision and the process-based roadmap was evident from even the most cursory perusal of both documents. The Bush insistence on measurable change prior to Israeli action on the ground was either overturned or finessed in the roadmap. Adopting the roadmap as the new peace plan had the predictable effect of subverting the prospect of a post-Arafat leadership. The United States still pledges fealty to the original roadmap, and it is likely to resurface at some time. Its legacy has been largely a negative one, of exempting the Palestinians from the very actions that would make progress possible.
But at the same time, U.S. policy has shifted from fruitless mediation to an endorsement of unilateral Israeli measures as a way out of the impasse. Washington no longer sends high-level emissaries to Arafat in his Ramallah compound. U.S. diplomatic and intelligence officials no longer run shuttles between various Palestinian figures. By endorsing the Sharon disengagement plan, the Bush administration has accepted the Israeli assessment that "there is no partner," and has aligned itself with Israeli unilateralism. This is true even if U.S. officials announce that the plan is really part of the roadmap, and that it does not prejudge final outcomes. (In fact, Israeli unilateralism is the antithesis of the roadmap, and the disengagement plan and security barrier could affect final outcomes.)
At the same time, it remains a goal of U.S. policy to renew diplomacy with a new and different Palestinian leadership, should it emerge. Even as the United States supports Israeli disengagement, it should take measures to encourage the emergence of a Palestinian leadership committed to peace. Such measures should consist of the following elements:
All these steps could have been taken with advantage long ago. The failure to do so has had deleterious results. Hopefully these steps, taken today, will produce a different situation in one, two, or five years—one in which U.S. officials will not need to urge the dismantling of terror groups, counsel restraint in the face of the latest outrage, or urge recommitment to yet another plan offering phased panaceas. This is the cycle that must be broken.
 Colin L. Powell, remarks to the Arab American Institute Foundation, Washington, D.C., May 5, 2001, at http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2001/index.cfm?docid=2741; idem, CNN, May 14, 2001, at http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2001/index.cfm?docid=2864; George W. Bush, news briefing with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, June 26, 2001, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/06/print/20010626-12.html.