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Drawing Lessons from the Past, Bush Ponders a Mideast Initiative

The White House is grappling with one of the oldest problems in modern Middle East peacemaking: how to construct parameters for peace that can withstand the tests of diplomacy and violence.

On Monday, President Bush completed an extensive consultation period with Middle East leaders, hosting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the sixth time since taking office, just days after hosting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Appearing with Sharon after their meeting, Bush backed Israel’s right to defend itself against Palestinian attacks, and continued his criticism of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

He also downplayed expectations of an international peace conference being planned for this summer, saying “the conditions aren’t even there yet” and highlighting the need for a much-discussed restructuring of Palestinian institutions to commence.

Over the weekend, Bush indicated that he would not bow to Arab pressure on the United States to lay out a firm timeline for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“We are not ready to lay down a specific calendar, except for the fact we need to get started quickly — soon — so that we can seize the moment,” Bush said in a news conference with Mubarak at Camp David on Saturday.

With consultations with regional leaders completed and two U.S. envoys back from the Middle East, the next few weeks are expected to be consumed with internal White House debate over the contours of a Middle East peace initiative.

Bush announced last week that after his consultations he would “talk to our country about how I think we should move forward,” but it remains unclear what form — a speech, dialogue or document — such guidelines will take.

At the heart of the debate, administration officials say, will be how to restore negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and whether Arafat should be afforded a place at the table.

The details will be the crux of the internal debate. The broad strokes of a final solution already have been laid out, analysts say, in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech in Louisville, Ky., last November, and in Bush’s Rose Garden address in April.

“There will be less of what we want to see at the end of the rainbow, and more of the how,” a State Department official said.

Since the 1967 Six-Day War changed the borders of the Middle East, American leaders have been crafting peace plans in an attempt to show leadership in the Middle East.

Many of the plans shared goals and visions, but none has succeeded in ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

There was the Rogers Plan, created by Secretary of State William Rogers in 1969, which proposed an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders in exchange for security. The plan broached the issues of a unified Jerusalem and the handling of Palestinian refugees.

Under President Carter, the 1978 Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel also called for “autonomy” for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — but were ambiguous enough that both sides interpreted the call as they wished.

Sparked by the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut, President Reagan suggested a plan in 1982. He called for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — but not a Palestinian state — and an Israeli settlement freeze on the way toward final negotiations.

In the 1990s, the Oslo peace process began in secret, direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials and then advanced through intensive mediation by the Clinton administration. It also sought “land for peace,” and resulted in intense negotiations toward a final settlement at Camp David during the summer of 2000.

None of these initiatives, however, produced lasting peace. Analysts say American plans don’t work mostly because they do not have the support of the parties themselves, and are rejected either by the leadership of one or the other side or become moot in the wake of a violent backlash.

Analysts say that, aside from the Oslo process, plans also failed because they didn’t have the full weight of U.S. pressure and diplomacy behind them.

“The United States has never committed itself, with the exception of Camp David, to a serious pursuit of a peace plan,” said Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

President Clinton was the only American leader to show true commitment to Middle East peace, Siegman says, and his effort failed only because of a “terrible mistake” by the Palestinian leadership in rejecting a generous offer and turning instead to violence.

Pro-Israel activist Morris Amitay said American plans historically have been ineffective because they have been created largely to appease Arab states, while — until Oslo — the United States had been uninterested in exerting pressure on Israel to become more flexible in its positions.

Amitay says he believes any plan announced by the Bush White House would move in the same direction as previous U.S. initiatives.

“If and when they do come down with a plan, it will be general and have enough loopholes to drive a truck through,” he said.

But Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, says Bush has more leverage than his predecessors, and can do more to implement a plan.

“The United States has emerged in the post-Sept. 11 period as the one superpower trying to rearrange the world to make some sense of a war against terrorism,” he said.

The focus on reform in Palestinian institutions lays the groundwork for the future of Palestinian society, a feature that wasn’t a focus of past peace plans. The support and participation of other Arab states in the peace effort also is seen as an encouraging sign, Bush administration officials said.

Siegman said adopting a firm timeline toward statehood is essential to give the Palestinians “a reason to believe there is a path to legitimate achievement of their goals.”

But some say a rigid timeline is unrealistic, because it ignores the effect violence and terrorism have on any peace process.

“Such a timeline, which is not predicated on the Palestinian Authority’s renunciation, rejection and elimination of terrorism, would undermine America’s war against terrorism by rewarding Palestinian violence,” the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Commitee, Amy Friedkin, said in a statement.

Analysts say Bush sent clear signals over the weekend that he is not willing to push Sharon beyond where he is willing to go, and any plan adopted by this White House will not offer concrete details for a future Palestinian state.

“I think this president is very wary of having a ‘land for nothing’ or a ‘land for terrorism’ deal,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think he’s going to tread more cautiously than others.”

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