The Region: Here we go round the mulberry bush

Why is Bush retracing the failures of his predecessor?

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles have been written on President George Bush's visit to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And not a single one that I've seen has mentioned the ridiculously obvious point that goes so far in explaining everything. To paraphrase the nursery rhyme, Bush is merely taking us around the mulberry bush once more. Namely, this is an exact replay of Bill Clinton's presidency. Eight years ago, in his last 12 months in office, Clinton, too, decided that the conflict must be resolved right away. Result: total, humiliating failure and a five-year-long bloody Palestinian war on Israel. As if this were not enough, whether or not even more violence will follow, Bush, through no fault of his own, is in a far worse position to play this game than was his predecessor. Let's compare these two cycles and see what should have been learned already. Perhaps, though I doubt it, the next administration will figure things out better. IN 2000, a seven-year-long peace process was due for completion. The Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank had been turned over to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Yasser Arafat. The PA had been given billions of dollars and military equipment, becoming a virtual US client. Despite these efforts, there was anarchy in the PA-ruled territory, constant incitement to violence against Israel on the official news media, no psychological or ideological preparation of the Palestinians by their leadership for peace, and a massive wasting of funds. Later, some analysts would explain away the failure by saying it was a mistake to force Arafat to the negotiating table for a decision. At the time, though, all one heard was how Arafat needed progress or he would lose control of his people, and that the window of opportunity was closing. The US, Israeli and European governments also wanted diplomatic progress for interests of their own. The result was not only the Camp David summit but also, and in some ways even more important, the Clinton plan that followed. The Palestinian leadership rejected both and instead opted for war. BUSH'S NEW policy may be a big change for him but, after all, he is merely making the same analysis and offering the same terms as his predecessor. It was an understanding of what went wrong with Clinton's thinking and his generous bid - in part taught them by Clinton itself - that explains the Bush administration's lower level of effort for most of its time in office. What does Arafat's situation and behavior tell us about those of his successors today? In all but a single respect - and that one only apparently - things are worse today. The one potential salvation was that Arafat had the power to make a deal if he wanted to. Of course, he did not. The Palestinian leader was restrained by his own character and ideology, and by fear of his own people, whom he had trained toward extremism for decades. The apparent improvement regarding PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is that he is more willing to make peace. Yet this is more than counterbalanced by his extraordinary weakness. Not only has Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, Abbas also does not have control over Fatah itself. If anything, Palestinian attitudes, where they count in terms of public politics and not merely personal opinions, are even more extreme. ONE CAN almost hear experts saying in a few years: "Of course it was a mistake to force Abbas into a position where he had to say no instead of always saying maybe.'' And that's why he fell from power to be replaced by Hamas (or even more anarchy)." But aren't the Palestinians desperate for a solution, given all their suffering? Don't they pant after a state; won't the refugees rejoice at returning from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to the new state of Palestine? The answer, as it was for Clinton's effort, is no. The ideology of extremist nationalism and Islamism, the belief that total victory is possible, the miscomprehension of Israel and suspicion of the West are all still in place. Even if anyone was able to transcend all those pressures, they would still restrained by knowing that to make a deal might not only be fatal but - far more certain - would destroy his reputation and career. In short, nobody will act like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in making peace with Israel because look what happened to him (reviled, boycotted by the Arab world, and assassinated). Nor do Palestinian leaders feel the need to run such risks. It is far easier to have a successful policy taking billions of dollars in Western money while complaining that nothing can be done because Israel is too intransigent and the US doesn't give enough. After all, who acts as if they desperately need a diplomatic solution right away and will pay anything to get it? Not the Palestinians or the Arab states but - of course - the West and the US. The bargaining tool of choice: Offer everything up front, and ask for little or nothing in exchange. WHY IS there such a shocking gap between reality and policy? On the one hand, it is due to ignorance and foolishness; but this is certainly only part of the picture. There are solid reasons for this kind of approach, though it is taken much too far. From the US standpoint, the goals include trying to improve the administration's image, build an anti-Iran/Islamist alliance, gain domestic support and soothe Arabs and Muslims. Some policymakers know this and are suitably cynical. Others are true believers who really think that solving the conflict will make all the other regional problems go away; they are simply unaware of why this issue is different from all other, at least non-Middle East, issues. Of course nothing will happen. But the real question is: Will anything be learned? Some are going to gain an understanding, as happened in 2000, but others will not. They will find easy excuses: Bush was incompetent; if only the seating had been arranged differently or the plan had been worded differently, or the US had tried five percent harder. The famous rock group Bill Haley & His Comets did a new version of the nursery rhyme in 1953, optimistically entitled, "Stop Beatin' Round the Mulberry Bush." What is most important, though, is that history always has the last laugh. In the end, the intellectual supposes; the policy-maker proposes; and reality has its way. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.