Taking Stock

September 1, 2003 Topic: Security Regions: LevantMiddle East Tags: BusinessGaza StripWest BankZionism

Taking Stock

Mini Teaser: To succeed, the roadmap to peace will need many things, not least of which is Israeli and Palestinian participation in it.

by Author(s): Dennis Ross

When the Bush Administration assumed office in January of 2001, it shifted direction in a number of foreign policy areas. Nowhere was the shift in direction and priority more pronounced than in the approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy. It was not only that the President would not be engaged; it was also that there would be no American envoy to the peace process. Indeed, in the first months of the administration, the very words "peace process" were banned from the public and private lexicon.

The policy was one of disengagement. A number of assumptions seemed to guide the new approach: the Clinton Administration erred in wanting peace more than the parties, with the President having been far too involved; Yasir Arafat was indulged too much; the new Ariel Sharon-led government in Israel would now rule out being able to achieve much; and U.S. interests in the region were threatened far more by Iraq. Dealing with that problem--as opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--was more likely to transform the landscape of the area.

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of America's intensive, high-level engagement in the 1990s, disengagement from peacemaking efforts was clearly not the answer. In the first years of the Bush Administration, with very limited American diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians, the intifada was transformed into a war with a vast escalation in the suffering on both sides. For Israelis and Palestinians alike, the price they paid for having no peace process was very high.

To put this in perspective, the number of Israelis killed in the first four months of the intifada (until the end of the Clinton Administration) was 42. By June 2003, over 800 Israelis had been killed. Palestinian fatalities went from 350 to nearly 2,500. The wounded amount to ten to twenty times the numbers killed. The economies on both sides have also paid a severe price. While the Israeli economy is in crisis--having declined in absolute terms every year for the last three years--the Palestinian economy has been devastated. More than 60 percent of Palestinians are presently living below the poverty level, and 1.8 million in the West Bank and Gaza are now dependent on subsistence from the UN and other international agencies.

But there has been another casualty as well: The psyches of both sides have been deeply wounded. Both Israeli and Palestinian publics have come to doubt whether they have a partner in peace on the other side. The problem is less a loss of confidence and more a loss of faith. And that cannot be restored overnight.

The Beginnings of Change

Under pressure from Arab leaders, especially Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the Bush Administration decided to re-engage in Middle Eastern diplomacy in August 2001. The President sent a private letter to the Crown Prince, establishing for the first time that U.S. policy would be to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, the Saudis and others were told that the President would have a brief meeting with Yasir Arafat on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York.

None of this was announced, and September 11 interrupted the advent of a new diplomacy. Given the administration's understandable preoccupation with the war in Afghanistan, a new effort on Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy was put on the backburner. Notwithstanding limited efforts to produce a ceasefire later in fall and early winter 2001-02, the administration's reluctance to engage itself seriously remained the guiding principle of its approach. The hesitancy was reinforced by perceptions that Arafat was doing little to stop terror, had frustrated General Anthony Zinni's effort to negotiate a ceasefire agreement, and had lied to the administration about trying to smuggle Iranian arms into the territories. Following the IDF's sweep of West Bank cities and an unproductive trip to the region by Secretary Powell in April 2002, the administration again came under increased pressure to do something.

The result was President Bush's speech of June 24, outlining his vision for peacemaking. He publicly called for a two-state solution to the conflict. However, by emphasizing a performance-based approach to peace, he effectively told the Palestinians that if they wanted a state they would have to earn it. They must reform themselves, build credible institutions, end corruption, fight terror and create an alternative leadership untainted by terror. If the Palestinians did all this, Israel needed to accept statehood and "end the occupation that began in 1967."

While long on exhortation and short on plans, the President's speech did create a new basis for the international community to address the issue. Palestinian reform became the focal point for activity, with emphasis put on creating transparency and accountability in the Palestinian Authority (pa). But translating this new emphasis into a new reality on the ground was bound to be difficult. There was nothing immediately practical in terms of what had been proposed. Reform as an objective was very important, but it was unlikely to be achievable unless the Israelis would relax their grip on the territories so reformers could move, meet and plan. For its part, the Israeli government might be a supporter of Palestinian reform--particularly if it meant sidelining Arafat--but it was not inclined to relax its grip on the territories if the result of doing so would be new terror attacks in Israel.

The stalemate remained. Finding a mechanism to act on the President's vision is what gave birth to the concept of a roadmap.

Tactical Objective, Strategic Consequence

Ironically, it was Arab leaders who initially raised the concept of a roadmap, notwithstanding their concern that the President's speech demanded too much from Palestinians and too little from Israelis. Desperate for the United States to intervene, they embraced the President's ultimate vision but called for a plan--a roadmap--to get there.

Here again, the administration did not rush to develop a roadmap. Arab leaders and Europeans were pleading for one to act on the President's words. Both argued that the U.S. position in the Middle East was being threatened by the administration's reluctance to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian war and its apparent eagerness to go to war with Saddam Hussein. Faced with the uncertainty of who to deal with on the Palestinian side and with the tactical need to gain support for its Iraq policy--or at least the prospect of acquiescence in it--the administration agreed to work with the EU, the UN and Russia in forging a roadmap to carry out the President's vision. While the United States would not let these other countries determine its response to Iraq, it would let them shape the conduct of U.S. diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians--an unprecedented step in the U.S. approach to Arab-Israeli issues. Few things better indicate that the real objective here had less to do with Middle East peace and much more to do with the Bush Administration's Iraq policy. Arabs, Europeans and others would find it easier to tolerate what the United States was doing in Iraq if the administration could point to its making a serious effort on Israeli-Palestinian peace--or so the thinking went.

This tactical objective led to a reversal of the traditional approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Rather than working out understandings with the parties, the administration engaged in a negotiation with the members of the Quartet (the United States, EU, UN and Russia). Consequently, the roadmap reflected agreement with parties that had no responsibility for carrying out even one of the steps for which they were calling. Conversely, the parties that would have to implement these steps were presented the roadmap after the Quartet had already agreed to it. They were each offered the opportunity to make comments but not to engage in a negotiation about its content or how it might actually be implemented. Perhaps the need to avoid negotiating with Yasir Arafat--as well as the desire to have an international consensus that would be difficult to reject--influenced the administration's approach.

By definition, however, the roadmap could never be brought to life if it were based only on the understandings of outsiders. Indeed, it could only materialize with clear and unambiguous understandings between the "insiders" on what each side would actually do, when they would do it, where they would do it and how they would do it. Not surprisingly, the roadmap, once unveiled, could not actually be launched without an agreed trigger. Though President Bush publicly announced the roadmap in March, before the beginning of the war in Iraq, it took active diplomacy in June, after the Aqaba summit to produce an agreement on initial steps that each side might take.

The Impact of the War in Iraq

Defeating Saddam was never going to yield peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The conflict between two national movements with competing historic claims to the same territory was not created by Saddam Hussein and was not going to be resolved by his demise. But the war and the fall of Saddam's regime did have an impact on U.S. diplomacy and on the Israelis and Palestinians. For his part, President Bush--as part of the effort to build support for the war--made promises to a number of leaders, including Arab leaders, that he would make a serious effort on Israeli-Palestinian peace after dealing with Saddam Hussein. The more he repeated this privately, the more he became sincerely wedded to doing it, and the roadmap, whatever the initial motives the administration had for it, suddenly became the President's avowed policy.

Essay Types: Essay