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Read His Lips: when Bush Talks of Mideast Engagement, is He Serious?

March 5, 2003
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The Bush administration says overthrowing Saddam Hussein will clear a path to renewed American engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

But many in Washington are skeptical that the administration’s attention will shift to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once an anticipated war on Iraq is over.

Under pressure to outline his vision for a post-war Iraq, President Bush told the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26 that the overthrow of the Iraqi president would promote Israeli-Palestinian peace by ridding Palestinian terrorists of a major source of funding.

“Without this outside support for terrorism, Palestinians who are working for reform and long for democracy will be in a better position to choose new leaders,” Bush said. “True leaders who strive for peace; true leaders who faithfully serve the people. A Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful state that abandons forever the use of terror.”

Bush called on Israel to work toward a peace agreement and — “as progress is made toward peace” — to end all settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Bush also called on Arab states to oppose terrorism and “state clearly they will live in peace with Israel.”

In a landmark speech last June, Bush called on Palestinians to replace Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat with leaders not compromised by terrorism, and said Palestinians would need to curb violence against Israel before they could achieve statehood.

While that speech remains the cornerstone of White House policy on the Middle East, critics argue that Bush has not fleshed it out, repeatedly stalling the presentation of the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace that is being prepared by the diplomatic “Quartet” of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

State Department sources say last week’s speech was part of the White House’s efforts to court the international community to support a U.S.-led war on Iraq. The speech also was intended as recognition of positive Palestinian steps — such as Arafat’s pledge to appoint a prime minister and new financial controls recently instituted in the Palestinian Authority.

“It wasn’t lip service,” a State Department official said. “We’ve been seeing progress on the Palestinian side, some indication that maybe the ideals are starting to take hold.”

“The Palestinian issue is likely to be a focus, along with other things,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Hopefully, the conditions will be right for new initiatives.”

But many in Washington think it may be unlikely that Bush can achieve his goals in the Middle East. Analysts argue that Bush’s comments downplayed the amount of time and influence that will be needed to bring democracy to Iraq and make the type of changes necessary to end a U.S. military presence there after a war.

In fact, they note, U.S. troops are still in Kosovo, where NATO forces secured a peace in 1999.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be No. 5 on the Bush administration’s foreign policy priority list after an Iraq war. Ahead of it are stabilizing Iraq, prosecuting the war on terrorism, curtailing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — especially from North Korea — and helping spread democracy in the Middle East.

That’s not even counting domestic concerns such as a weak economy and the requisite focus on Bush’s own campaign as the 2004 election approaches.

“This administration is going to have a full plate,” Makovsky said.

Therefore, the administration is likely to expend the political capital needed for momentum on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking only if it sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

That, Makovsky argues, is dependent on cooperation from the Arab world to push for new Palestinian leadership and to pressure the Palestinian Authority to take reforms seriously.

“This isn’t Bill Clinton, who will want to run off to a summit,” he said. “Before inserting the prestige of his office, Bush will want to see signs that he can succeed.”

But Bush’s promises of increased engagement after a war mean that the White House will have to do something, Makovsky said. If the time isn’t ripe for a major effort, the White House may suffice with throwing some money at the problem in the form of increased aid — or it may convene an international conference — steps that aren’t likely to produce real progress.

However, Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA, says it’s disingenuous to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as only one of several priorities for the Middle East, because solving the conflict is central to achieving the administration’s other goals in the region.

The missing element is not Arab support, he says, because “the mainstream Arabs are looking desperately, they want” the Israeli-Palestinian violence “off the television screens.”

Instead, the problem is the United States, which has not followed through on its declared goals, he says.

“The president has had an extremely good declaratory policy,” said Spiegel, a scholar with the pro-peace Israel Policy Forum. “The problem is the actions have been anemic at best, and he really hasn’t delivered on the promises of the speeches.”

For example, he notes, the administration hasn’t had an envoy on the ground in the region for almost a year.

Jon Alterman, director of Middle East programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the key is that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are willing to change their local political environments to make them more conducive to peace.

Alterman says it’s unlikely the United States will make a bold move on the Israeli-Palestinian front unless there is a change in Palestinian leadership — or unless Israel and the White House change their view that such a change in leadership is essential for progress.

Given those parameters, Alterman said last week’s speech was intended mostly to appease an international audience.

“When you talk to a foreign audience, you get a lot of exasperation,” he said. “A lot of folks in the international community are incensed that we see Iraq as the prime threat to peace and stability in the Middle East, while they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.”

Bush, who hopes to build international support for a new U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, is believed to be using talk of long-term progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front to get more countries on board for an attack on Iraq.

There is some legitimacy to Bush’s claims, Alterman said: Many in the administration believe Saddam’s overthrow would show U.S. resolve to combat weapons proliferation and rogue regimes. That could make it easier for pro-democracy leaders to emerge in the Middle East.

If that does happen, the White House could play a dramatic role. But there is much skepticism that the situation will unfold as the White House hopes.

Some wonder if the White House has a clear understanding of the probable political dynamics in the region after an Iraq war and the obstacles that will face the administration. What is not being questioned, for the most part, is the intensity of Bush’s belief in the requirements he has outlined for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

“The read is that he really believes it, and you are underestimating him if you think he’s not committed to his goals,” one Jewish official said.

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