Essay: Roll up your sleeves, Mr. President

Bush must lay out view on status issues so Palestinians, Israelis have clear agenda upon which to talk.

daniel kurtzer 88 (photo credit: )
daniel kurtzer 88
(photo credit: )
I fear the United States has lost its will and determination to engage in the nitty-gritty work of brokering Middle East peace. Ever since the shuttle diplomacy in 1991 of former secretary of state James A. Baker III that resulted in the Madrid peace conference, US leaders and officials have been reluctant, though periodically active, peacemakers. Americans have become prone to resort to lofty rhetoric and armchair diplomacy. While sometimes demonstrating strong emotional commitment and sometimes engaging quite earnestly with the parties, we have not shown toughness on the toughest issues. The results have been minimal and often counterproductive. Even when our leaders have given it their all, the results have turned sour. President Bill Clinton did not engage in Middle East peace efforts until midway into his second term, and then embarked on a series of high-profile diplomatic gambits whose failures seeded an already dismal environment, the result of which was bloodshed rather than reconciliation. President George W. Bush articulated a vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, and he oversaw the formulation of a road map for moving toward a realization of that vision. But there was no sustained US effort or leadership and no willingness to push on both sides to take hard steps. The result was a road map to nowhere and a vision without substance. American leaders and envoys, it appears, have been unwilling to take the hardest steps toward the peace we say is so vital to our national interests. In itself, American reticence to exert the leadership required to catalyze a Middle East peace breakthrough would not be a problem if the parties would go off by themselves and negotiate peace or if they would empower another third party to assist them. Neither of these has succeeded for long. Israelis and Palestinians used Norwegian auspices - largely confined to hosting secret talks and arranging logistics - to negotiate the Oslo Accords in 1993. Much later, the two sides engaged with the Quartet to oversee and monitor implementation of the road map; but as useful as the Quartet proved to be in concerting external parties' strategy, it proved too unwieldy to do the agile diplomacy required of an active peace process. For this reason, US reticence to demonstrate diplomatic strength in the peace process and the peace process failures when the US did engage are puzzling. Baker's success in 1991 and the success of some earlier US mediation efforts - such as former president Jimmy Carter's brokering Egyptian-Israeli peace and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger's helping Israel, Egypt and Syria negotiate three disengagement agreements after the 1973 war - have a number of important features in common. • First, they all enjoyed the unqualified support and backing of the American president. The parties understood that the president had decided to make the Middle East a priority, which is no small matter. No one has ever accused Yitzhak Rabin, Hafez Assad, Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir of softness, and yet each ended up making concessions in negotiations that derived directly from the persuasive pressure of a US president. • A second issue relates to accountability - did the US, as third party, do enough to hold the parties accountable for implementing or failing to implement agreements? For example, when the Palestinians resorted to terrorism, breaking their commitment at Oslo to renounce and uproot terror from their midst, the US condemned such acts, but there was no consequence for Palestinians having broken their commitment. • A third feature common to successful negotiations was the willingness of the US to adopt positions that were not identical to those of the parties. The US did not necessarily "split the difference" between the sides or always come out in the middle, but it did find ways to articulate positions which could represent possible compromises or launch negotiations in the right direction. Over the past 15 years, this element has been largely absent from US diplomacy. Indeed, when the US did put forward a proposal at Camp David in 2000, the paper was quickly withdrawn in the face of reservations expressed by both sides. SUCCESSFUL US mediation efforts also demonstrated willingness by the incumbent president to adhere to his policies and approach, even in the face of opposition from the parties and domestic US opposition. Carter and Begin disagreed profoundly over Israeli settlements policies - as did president George H.W. Bush and Shamir. But the US presidents stood their ground, notwithstanding the high domestic political costs of such confrontations. In contrast, Clinton and Bush never set out a US position in Arab-Israeli affairs that aroused opposition from the American Jewish community, suggesting that domestic considerations were an inhibitor in each administration when it came to brokering Middle East peace. Perhaps most important among the factors of previous US success was sustainability and determination. The Bush administration's approach to the peace process has seemed far more content with pronouncements than with active diplomacy. Bush's 2002 vision of peace will stand as a highlight of his administration, but what happened after he spoke the words? A year later he launched the road map, only to see it fail within three months without any serious US effort to assist its implementation. Bush has said that the achievement of a two-state solution is one of his administration's highest priorities, but he has done almost nothing to back up those important words with even minimal deeds. As Bush grapples with the crisis in Iraq and the emerging crisis in Iran, it is unrealistic to believe that he will change course on Arab-Israeli issues, adopt positions that could be unpopular at home and dive in head first into peace brokering. High-sounding rhetoric likely will remain the preferred diplomatic approach of this administration. DESPITE MANY years of violence, public opinion among both Israelis and Palestinians remains supportive of peace. Now that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have met - and are reportedly scheduled to meet again next week - there is an opportunity to line up the will of the people with the creativity and political ingenuity of their leaders. Meanwhile, seismic strategic changes are under way in the region. Saudi Arabia appears far more ready for regional stabilization - including peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Saudis have on the table a peace proposal which appears to be of interest, at least in part, to Israel's leadership. The issue in Israel today is no longer the will to make peace or settlement policy; Israel's 2005 disengagement from Gaza and Prime Minister Olmert's election prove clearly that Israel is ready for a serious peace process with the Palestinians. Thus, there is a choice for the US administration, even in the final two years of George Bush's presidency. Bush can continue his hands-off approach to Arab-Israeli issues and confine himself to lofty policy statements about the desirability of a two-state solution. Or, he can invest presidential determination and time to jump-start negotiations; lay out US thinking on final status issues in a manner designed to provide the parties with an agenda for negotiations; and keep the parties focused on negotiating in good faith and implementing what they have agreed. The writer, a former US ambassador to Israel, holds the S. Daniel Abraham Chair in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. A longer version of this essay appears in the current issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal, devoted to 'The Role of the International Community.'