8 January 2008
George W Bush and the Middle East
By Gwynne Dyer
“Let’s not raise our expectations too high. We are talking about weak leaders on both sides, leaders who can barely stand on their own two feet….It seems fair to say that no great miracle will happen here.” So wrote Israeli journalist Yoel Marcus in Ha’aretz on the eve of President George W. Bush’s visit to Israel. The two weak leaders he was talking about were Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, but it applies equally to Bush himself.
The most positive thing that can be said about Bush’s whirlwind seven-day tour of the Middle East (Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, plus perhaps a surprise stop in Iraq) is that it probably won’t make matters worse. On the other hand, that’s mainly because they are so bad already that it would take real creativity to make them worse.
The spin machines are spinning and optimistic forecasts are being made for the outcome of this Bush administration initiative, which seeks to create a legacy of success in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement after failure on almost every other front. (Please don’t mention Camp David, Bill Clinton’s similar failed bid for a legacy in the last year of his eight-year tenancy at the White House. It annoys them.) But Clinton was operating in a far more promising environment than Bush is, for reasons that are not entirely Bush’s fault.
Back in the Clinton era (1993-2001), there was still reason to hope that there might actually be a “two-state solution” that saw an independent Palestinian state co-exist peacefully with Israel on the territory of the former British mandate of Palestine. The Oslo accords of 1993 had drawn up a plan intended to lead to such a goal through phased negotiations and concessions, and hard-line opponents of a compromise peace on both sides worried that the deal might actually be made. But thanks in large part to their obstructionism, it never happened.
After the pro-peace Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995, Palestinian hard-liners in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organisations were so afraid that Israelis would elect a radical pro-peace government on a sympathy vote that they launched a terrorist bus-bombing campaign to prevent it. The aim was to kill enough Israelis to caused a wave of outrage that drove voters into the arms of the right-wing Likud Party, which fundamentally opposed any “land-for-peace” deal with the Palestinians.
The bus bombs during the 1996 election duly delivered the prime ministership to Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who spent the next three years pretending to negotiate with the Palestinians (to keep the Clinton White House happy) while dragging his feet on the moves that were actually required to make a Palestinian state viable. And the bus bombings stopped, because there was no longer any genuine danger of a “two-state” peace settlement.
The change of government in Israel in mid-1999 created a slim chance of reviving the Oslo plan, although Palestinian disillusionment with the project was already pretty deep. The Clinton administration held the Camp David talks in July, 2000 in the desperate hope that last-minute success could be snatched from the jaws of failure, but it didn’t happen. By 2001, when George W. Bush took office in the United States, the second “intifada” (Palestinian uprising) was well underway.
Since then things have gone from bad to worse. Israelis have despaired of a negotiated peace and shifted towards unilateral measures like the wall that wends its way through the West Bank, separating the Israeli settlements from the Palestinian hinterland. For many Palestinians,the death of Arafat in 2004 drained the last credibility from the two-state solution, and the star of the hard-liners has risen there too. It culminated, last summer, in Hamas’s armed seizure of control in the Gaza Strip, which effectively divides the Palestinian Authority in two.
Little of this is President Bush’s fault, and it probably wouldn’t have happened very differently if he had been hyper-active rather than comatose in his pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. He has done great damage further east with his invasion of Iraq, and the Arab world will be dealing with the Islamist radicals whose cause he has so greatly empowered for a long time to come, but the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” was already a train wreck before Bush set foot in the White House.
Another Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, correctly judged the prospects of the current initiative when it wrote: “Once again Israelis who oppose territorial concessions can rest quiet in the knowledge that Arab leaders look set to doom the peace process to failure by waiting for someone else to move it forward.”
An Arab newspaper might write with equal justice that Palestinians who oppose territorial concessions can rest quiet in the knowledge that the Israeli government would promptly collapse if Prime Minister Olmert proposed any steps radical enough to revive Palestinian faith in the possibility of a negotiated peace. It’s over, and the local leaders are just acting out their allotted roles in the charade to keep Washington happy. President Bush will have to seek his legacy elsewhere.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“After…settlement”)