Friday, May 16, 2008

Bush & the Palestinians

Yesterday, President Bush gave a gracious interview in the Oval Office to The Jerusalem Post and three other Israeli journalists. Today, the president embarks on a hectic farewell trip to the Middle East that will bring him to Israel tomorrow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of this nation's founding.

On Friday the president will head to Saudi Arabia to mark the 75th anniversary of the establishment of ties between Washington and Riyadh. And on Saturday, he will travel to Sharm e-Sheikh to meet Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, and Jordan's King Abdullah II. He is also scheduled to see the Afghan president, Iraqi leaders and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Finally, Bush will participate in a World Economic Forum gathering before heading home.

Presidents come and go - figuratively as well as literally - but America's stance toward the Arab-Israel conflict remains remarkably consistent. Support for Israel is balanced against Washington's energy and strategic interests in the Arab world, tending to leave neither Israelis nor Arabs completely satisfied.

When Israel not only survived but captured vast amounts of territory in the 1967 Six Day War, America saw an opportunity to pursue a policy of "land for peace." Arguably, few Arab leaders can bring themselves to accept the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the region. Nevertheless, land for peace has remained the unwavering American policy approach. The personalities, daily headlines and controversies change, but not America's fundamental direction. It is in this context that the pattern of Bush's decisions must be understood.

Recall that Yasser Arafat launched the Aksa intifada just months after Bush took office, even though Ehud Barak had offered him both land and statehood. Bush gave up on Arafat, refusing to ever meet with him, but stuck with the land-for-peace idea.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks on the US, Bush sought to garner support among Arab and Muslim pragmatists. Thus on June 24, 2002, he articulated his "vision" of a Palestinian state predicated on Palestinians electing reformist leaders. Bush sidelined Arafat and championed the more pragmatic, if ineffectual, Mahmoud Abbas.

Though the violence continued, in March 2003 Bush unveiled "a performance-based and goal-driven road map," to Palestinian statehood, calling for an immediate, unconditional cessation of Palestinian violence. But it also said, "As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end." As Palestinian attacks went on to kill more than 1,000, Israel had little incentive to freeze Jewish life in Judea and Samaria. Still, repeated and unfulfilled promises to dismantle non-authorized settlement outposts continue to undermine Jerusalem's credibility.

Convinced that Abbas would not take risks for peace, Ariel Sharon proposed unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank. Bush chose to interpret this as being in harmony with the road map. And on April 15, 2004, he wrote Sharon to say that in light of new realities it would be unrealistic for final-status negotiations to result in a withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines.

Israel pulled out from Gaza in August 2005, giving the PA the perfect opportunity to create a nascent state. It was tragically squandered.

Hamas's victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections held in January 2006 exacerbated an already volatile environment, and in June 2007 Abbas was ousted from Gaza. Today he hangs on in the West Bank due in no small measure to the IDF's presence.

No one can blame President Bush for not having ended the Arab-Israel conflict. And yet there are steps he could take to leave our region better off than when he took office.

He could unambiguously tell the relative moderates among the Palestinians that their demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines is unrealistic; that their claims to a "right of return," which would spell the demographic destruction of Israel, should be abandoned; and he could press Abbas to use his Western-trained and -equipped forces to tackle the terrorist infrastructure right under his nose.

Finally, Bush could point out that no progress will be made until Abbas prepares his people for genuine reconciliation with Israel.

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