A Roadmap to Nowhere

President Bush’s recently announced plan to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process fails to accord with Middle Eastern realities.

"People have been pressing the president for three years to get engaged in the Middle East peace process", former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis noted at The Nixon Center on July 18. Now that the president recently announced his intention to do just that, an array of critics has already derided Bush's efforts as too little, too late. Daniel Levy, a senior fellow and director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Policy Initiative, begged to differ. Levy stated that Bush's approach to the issue suffers from more problems than just his sense of timing. The president's failure to give regional trends proper consideration and his flawed approach to organizing a Middle Eastern conference on the issue make meaningful steps towards a settlement unlikely.

Levy characterized Bush's recent speech as "more of the same, with less chance of success", listing several trends he believes will undermine attempts to revitalize the peace process. First, the lack of palpable progress-"the seven lean years" since the Camp David peace talks-provide a less-than-hopeful context for a new round of negotiations. Second, Islamization in Arab society has spilled over into regional politics, injecting additional volatility into an already unstable situation. Third, the inability of Fatah-the secular, nationalist Palestinian party-to deliver an independent Palestinian state has eroded Fatah's legitimacy among its constituents. The party's failure to produce peace-process results and its dismal governing record have contributed to the emergence of Hamas, a rival Palestinian Islamist faction considered a terrorist group by the United States and the EU. Fatah simply has not been the same since the 2004 death of its leader and founder, Yasir Arafat. Levy observed that Palestinian politics is still in "post-Arafat transition", since the lionized Arafat left behind big shoes to fill.

Finally, Levy highlighted former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's role in stymieing attempts to push negotiations forward. The expert suggested that Sharon recognized a consensus forming around a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem-a resolution that the politician could never accept. Sharon, who possessed a little-recognized political acumen, "consciously tried to collapse the Palestinian national movement." After Arafat died in 2004, Sharon refused to return to the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, Sharon imbued the Israeli policymaking apparatus with his views. Yet Sharon's "default position" competes with an opposing, though "equally strong", push for a quickly crafted two-state solution. Those who hold to this position also "cling to the remaining vestiges of the moderate Palestinian leadership." The clash of these two perspectives has resulted in a strong sense of confusion about the peace process's direction.

Adding to this confusion is a thick gloom that has settled over all ideological quarters of Israeli society. Israelis believe that all their efforts-whether military or diplomatic, unilateral or multilateral-to resolve the Palestinian problem have come to naught.

Some of the more optimistic Israelis-and their ever-hopeful American counterparts-have embraced the much-touted Arab Initiative, a Saudi peace plan first put forward in 2002. This plan, Levy remarked, is "only very significant if you're a marketing person." The initiative allows Israeli leaders to "re-package a tired peace process in white Saudi schmattas in the hope that it can actually be sold in that form", he said.

The deterioration of the Palestinian political situation in recent weeks also does not bode well for a new U.S. peace initiative. More than a year after Hamas beat Fatah in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, the Islamist party joined its secular rival in an awkwardly patched-up unity government. When the unity government collapsed, Hamas launched a successful military takeover of the Gaza Strip, and Fatah staked a sole claim on the West Bank. While the Fatah government has been showered with Western praise, Hamas has faced the international community's scorn.

Now, the Bush Administration has proposed conducting peace negotiations only with Fatah. According to Levy, the U.S. leadership fails to realize that fostering a sustainable peace process will be extremely difficult if discussing the fate of a large portion of the Palestinian population is out of the question.

Levy worried about other missteps laid bare in Bush's speech. He expressed special concern about the administration's calls for a "front loading of Arab diplomatic gestures" before serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations begin. The United States could spend months "chasing [its] tail" trying to decide what the nebulous "Arab deliverables" should be. Worse, Bush took a "sideswipe" at the Arab governments he plans to invite to the regional conference, which could well put a chill on conference discussions. Serious negotiations will only be possible if the administration extends invitations to all Arab countries, including Syria, drops its disdain for the Palestinian unity government and allows wide-ranging debate.

Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House, analyzed another recent development on the peace-process front-the appointment of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the Quartet (Russia, the EU, the UN, the United States) envoy handling domestic Palestinian problems. Hollis noted that Blair may not realize the sheer difficulty of the job he has taken on. She pointed to the final report of Álvaro de Soto, a former UN envoy to the Quartet, as an indication of the troubles that might lie ahead for Blair. In his scathing report, de Soto described his job as useless and characterized the UN's inclusion in the Quartet as bizarre and inappropriate.