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Bush Enters the Middle East Fray
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Strategic Insights, Vol. 1, Issue 5 (July 2002)
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Bush Enters the Middle East Fray
by Glenn E. Robinson
Strategic Insights are authored monthly by analysts with the Center for Contemporary Conflict (CCC). The
CCC is the research arm of the National Security Affairs Department
at the Naval Postgraduate School in
Monterey, California. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent
the views of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
July 1, 2002
On 24 June, President George Bush finally entered the fray of Middle East peace making. During his first
year in office, his administration had steadfastly refused to get involved in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute,
believing such personal intervention by President Clinton had famously backfired. Finally pressed by the
deteriorating conditions on the ground because of the al-Aqsa uprising, and due to the need for Arab
support in any campaign against Iraq, the Bush administration finally jumped in -- but not Bush himself. It
was left primarily to Secretary of State Colin Powell and special envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni to engage
Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, Bush's only major statement prior to 24 June came in April when he
demanded that Israel quit its military offensive in much of the West Bank. Israel's hawkish prime minister,
Ariel Sharon, succeeded in ignoring Bush's demand without paying any political penalty. Badly burned by
Sharon, Bush hesitated to jump in the fire again.
Thus, the most important result of President Bush's Rose Garden speech on 24 June is that it happened
at all. The president has clearly put his own political capital on the line in a way that he has avoided for 18
months. Grudgingly to be sure, Bush has now committed his presidency to finding a lasting peace
between Israel and Palestine.
The content of Bush's vision for peace is unsurprising; anyone who follows the conflict already knows the
principles upon which that peace will be consummated: the creation of a Palestinian state in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip, with borders roughly those in place before the 1967 war. This is the "land for
peace" formula enshrined in U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and what is understood by
virtually all parties as the necessary end state of negotiations. Moreover, this implies a sharing of
Jerusalem between the two parties and the dismantling of most Jewish settlements illegally built in the
West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967. Bush declined to speak on the thorny issue of Palestinian
The most controversial aspect of Bush's vision is his call for Palestinians to replace their leadership - read
Yasir Arafat - in order for the process to move forward. Bush has made no secret of his lack of trust in
Arafat, and the president was right to note the corruption and inefficiencies that plague the Palestinian
Authority under Arafat. Bush was also correct to suggest that Arafat has, at the least, tacitly condoned a
number of suicide bombings. However, Arab commentators were quick to note that while Bush has
disqualified Arafat as an interlocutor because he has "blood on his hands", no such disqualification was
made for Sharon (the author of several infamous massacres of Arabs, and a man who may yet stand trial
in Europe for Milosovic- and Pinochet-like war crimes). Nor did the United States ever disqualify from
negotiations former Israeli prime ministers Menachim Begin or Yitzhaq Shamir, leaders of the Irgun and
Stern terrorist groups, respectively, earlier in their careers. Such commentators were also quick to point
out that Arafat, like Sharon, is the democratically elected leader of his people (Arafat was elected
president of the Palestinian Authority in 1995 with 87% of the vote in elections deemed free and fair by
the United States and other international monitors).
Bush and the Palestinians
Arab commentators like Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Arab News in Saudi Arabia, believe that Bush is
blaming the victims, that is, the Palestinians under occupation, rather than blaming the oppressor: "Bush
just completely adopted the Israeli analysis of the situation, that it is terror forcing Israel to maintain its
occupation, not that occupation is leading to terrorism." Such criticism does have some basis as Bush has
put tremendous emphasis on "ending Palestinian terror" without evincing any understanding of the
reasons why some Palestinians are driven to such desperate measures. One can understand without
accepting or justifying such things.
In Bush's vision, Palestinians have the additional burden of undertaking their responsibilities prior to any
significant Israeli moves. For Bush, Palestinians must elect a "new and different leadership" and
undertake far-reaching (and necessary) reforms in the way the Palestinian government operates prior to
the United States backing a provisional Palestinian state - and only then bringing pressure to bear on
Israel to likewise accept Palestinian statehood and take the hard decisions to finally let go of the West
Bank and Gaza Strip.
While most of Bush's harshest comments were reserved for the Palestinians, Bush's speech was far from
a disaster for them. A number of prominent Palestinian commentators saw some genuinely positive
developments in the speech. For example, Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmad Abd al-Rahman praised
Bush's vision as "the first time that an American administration recognized that the only solution for this
conflict is to end the occupation and to have a state live in peace beside Israel - this is an historic change
in the American stand."
Indeed, there was much for Palestinians to like in Bush's speech. Bush unequivocally called for the end to
Israel's 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This was a necessary and positive step, as
it reminded Americans that even nine years after the historic Oslo breakthrough, Israel remained an
occupying power of virtually all Palestinian lands. These are not "disputed" lands to be divvied up, they
are "occupied" lands that must be given over in full to Palestinian sovereignty. Indeed, for Bush it is only
through the creation of a "stable, peaceful Palestinian state" that Israel's legitimate security needs can be
met. In the shorter term, Bush called for an end to Israel's settlement policy - something that has been
intensified under Sharon - and for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from re-occupied urban areas in the West
Bank to positions held in September 2000 - prior to the start of the current uprising. As for internal
changes in the Palestinian Authority, many Palestinians tired of the corruption and creeping
authoritarianism of the PA have been calling for precisely these reforms for years. If the political and
administrative reforms come to pass, most Palestinians will embrace them.
Bush and the Israelis
Bush's plan was warmly accepted by most Israelis, including the Sharon government, for obvious reasons.
By placing the blame for the current state of disrepair squarely on Palestinian terror, Bush appealed to
strongly held Israeli views that Palestinian violence must stop before any negotiations begin. Such a
sentiment, while entirely understandable in human terms, cuts against the historical grain, as virtually all
anti-colonial wars were still ongoing when a political deal was cinched (be it in Algeria, Vietnam, South
Africa, Ireland, or elsewhere). That the Palestinians must undertake all of the early hard steps and only
then will Israel have to respond in kind likewise appealed to Israel.
Israelis across the political spectrum embraced Bush's lightly veiled call for Arafat's removal. For better or
worse, Arafat has been thoroughly demonized in the Israeli popular imagination. Bush's speech led David
Landau, editor of the influential Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, to triumphantly describe Arafat as a "dead
man walking" who had just been "politically assassinated by President George W. Bush."
For most Israelis, the hard steps that Israel will eventually have to undertake in Bush's vision are well
known. Opinion polls in Israel consistently show that a majority of Israelis know and accept that Israel will
have to withdraw to the 1967 boundaries, that most settlements will have to be disbanded, and that a
Palestinian state will be created in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Will it Work?
While the end game -- a two state solution -- is by now widely accepted, the implementation of Bush's
plan will likely be problematic. For starters, Bush was short on specifics in terms of implementation,
linkages and schedules. The devil is in the details, and important missing details can thwart even the best
of plans. For example, who gets to decide if Palestinian reforms have gone far enough to necessitate
Israeli concessions? A Sharon government would just drag its heals and refuse to ever 'certify' the
reforms. If Bush himself makes that determination, will he be willing to put real pressure on a Sharon
government determined to stall for time? Sharon's humiliation of Bush last April should give one pause in
Even more important, Bush is asking that Arafat and Sharon do things that go against their ideological
core interests, an almost impossible undertaking. Bush is asking that Arafat step aside, make himself
irrelevant. How many politicians and national leaders ever voluntarily bench themselves? Not many, and
Arafat has not shown himself to be the kind of statesman to consider starting a trend. As is oft observed,
there are no living former presidents in the Arab world. Being 'benched' often has more personal
ramifications in the Arab world. Through thick and thin, Arafat has tenaciously clung to power, so there is
no reason to believe that he will agree to Bush's demand to leave office.
As for Sharon, the constant guiding principle of his political career over the past 35 years is to assure
permanent Israeli control over the West Bank -- or "Judea and Samaria" as he and other ideological
hawks like to call it. Sharon has been the single most important driving force in building illegal settlements
in the West Bank; he orchestrated a disastrous war against the PLO in Lebanon in 1982 largely to try to
destroy the only Palestinian leadership that could prevent Israeli annexation of the West Bank; in the
midst of sensitive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians just months before he became prime
minister, Sharon publicly encouraged settlers in the West Bank to grab every available hilltop as he
feared Ehud Barak was about to quit the West Bank. These are not the actions of a man willing to end
Israel's occupation of the West Bank and withdraw Israel's army and settlers to the 1967 border
(something he repeatedly rejects in any case).
Neither Arafat in the short term nor Sharon down the road will be willing accomplices in implementing
Bush's Middle East peace plan. The only real question is whether the Bush administration will stay
engaged and take the necessary risks to implement a fair solution, or whether it will revert to its first year
form and disengage, thereby allowing both Arafat and Sharon to kill any hope for peace and a better life
for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
For more topical analysis from the CCC, see our Strategic Insights section.
For related links, see our Middle East Resources.