With his prestige at its highest, thanks to his victory in Iraq, President George W. Bush is heading for his first attempt at peacemaking in the Middle East.
By taking up the challenge, President Bush has decided to follow all his predecessors, from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton.
If all goes well Bush will meet Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon and Palestine’s new Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for a troika summit in Egypt within the next few days. The hope is that the summit will fire the staring shot on Bush’s “roadmap.” Published last year, the “roadmap” commits the U.S. administration to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
The Israeli cabinet’s decision to accept the “roadmap,” albeit with reservations, is one sign that a breakthrough may yet be possible. The new Palestinian cabinet, too, appears keen to play along, if only because it cannot develop an alternative strategy. Sharon and Abu Mazen, who have already met twice, have promised to iron out some of their differences before they meet Bush.
There are other reasons for optimism.
The United States is now a stronger presence in the Middle East than ever before. Its victory in Iraq, has removed one of the key illusions of Arab radicalism about a “strongman,” such as Saddam Hussein, some day wiping Israel off the map. The Syrian Baathists and the Iranian mullahs are also nervous, and unlikely to sabotage the peace process as they have always done.
Although hopes for a breakthrough are high, it is not at all certain that Bush will succeed where his predecessors failed. Nor can one be sure that the summit, and indeed the entire Middle East visit, have been carefully planned and prepared.
A visit by an American president should be a major event, well prepared, and sure to lead to tangible results. (Bill Clinton debased the exercise by embarking on too many visits that produced too few results. (For example, he met Yasser Arafat 22 times, far more than any other foreign leader.)
Bush has won much respect, part of it grudging, in the Middle East by showing that he is not a photo-op time-waster. So far he has done what he said he would, especially by toppling Saddam Hussein. He should not be dragged into dicey diplomatic exercises and promise to deliver what is not his to deliver.
The belief that the United States can impose peace is based on a dangerous illusion. No “roadmap,” least of all the one on offer, would lead anywhere unless the two nations directly concerned make a strategic choice of peace.
Israel may have taken such a decision in 2000 when Yasser Arafat rebuffed it. Under the present circumstances, however, it is not certain that a majority of Israelis are prepared to take the risks needed for fresh attempts at peacemaking.
On the Palestinian side the situation has always been more ambiguous. It is quite possible that a majority of Palestinians living in Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem, given a chance, would seek peace. But they have never been given such a chance by a leadership, much of it imported from the outside, that has always played the peace card only as a tactic.
An analysis of Arafat’s contradictory statements over some 30 years shows that he has always been careful to maintain the dream of wiping Israel off the map as part of his broader political vision. To be sure, people, and especially political leaders, must be judged also by what they do and not solely by what they say. But even by that standard, Arafat has manifested his lack of commitment to peace on numerous occasions. Each time he was obliged to take the final plunge to make lasting peace possible, he walked out.
Arafat knows that a peaceful Palestine would become a democratic Palestine. He also knows that there is no room in any democracy for the type of politician that he is. Arafat can function only in the context of conflict, tension, and uncertainty.
One might ask why should we bother about Arafat? Has he not become “irrelevant” now that Abu Mazen is prime minister?
The answer is that Arafat is as in control today as he was before Abu Mazen received a phone call from the White House. Arafat controls the purse strings, retains a veto on major appointments, and, last but not least, commands Al Fatah and its armed group, the Tanzim. The majority on which Abu Mazen depends in the Palestinian National Council (parliament) consists of men and women loyal to Arafat.
Arafat will not allow anyone to emerge as an alternative Palestinian interlocutor in any peace process. In 1992 Arafat deployed all his resources to destroy Haidar Abdel-Shafi who had emerged as an alternative Palestinian leader during the Madrid Peace Conference.
And now, Arafat is spending a good part of his time setting up roadblocks for Abu Mazen even before the latter has started on Bush’s “roadmap.”
Arafat is not the only problem, however. A substantial body of Palestinian opinion is also opposed to peace. A hard core represented by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and a number of smaller leftist and Islamist groups, make no secret of their hopes to “liberate” the whole of pre-1948 Palestine, which means dismantling Israel.
“We reject the two-state solution proposed by Bush,” says Abdelaziz Rantissi, a Hamas leader. “There are no ifs and buts about our position.” The creation of Israel was an injustice that must be undone. There can be no compromise.”
Others support a “one state” solution. This, too, means dismantling Israel and replacing it with a secular state, for both Palestinians and those Jews who might wish to stick around.
These are the crucial issues that the “roadmap” ignores.
The “roadmap” is a patchwork, written by many hands — including French, Russian, and the United Nations — and thus full of contradictions. It sets fanciful deadlines for achieving goals that have remained elusive for half a century. In this “roadmap” one finds motorways, and broad boulevards along with narrow alleys and labyrinthine culs de sac.
Drawn by a “quartet,” this “roadmap” is as dicey as a meal cooked by four chefs with different recipes and styles, and different plans for the guests. (Some may want to poison the guests!)
What is to be done?
There are problems that do not have immediate solutions. The way to deal with them is to contain them and wait until the context changes.
How might the context change in this case?
The first step is to hold free and fair elections so that the Palestinians have a chance to directly choose between peace and war. This writer is confident that, given a chance, the Palestinians will choose peace. Despite his financial and organizational clout, Arafat is unlikely to win a majority in a free and fair election, especially if Abu Mazen joins the moderate center that already holds a third of the seats in the parliament.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other radical groups are likely to end up with 30 percent of the votes. It is important that they be integrated in the system.
Once the Palestinian people have elected a new leadership with a clear mandate for peace, they could enter meaningful negotiations with Israel under the auspices of the United States.
A new elected leadership will enjoy the legitimacy and moral authority needed to do what Abu Mazen cannot: i.e. disarm the armed groups, starting with the Tanzim, that pursue their own agendas.
Palestinian elections should not be postponed further. The current parliament has outlived its constitutional term and no longer reflects the mood of the Palestinians.
As things stand the Bush peace mission is unlikely to succeed if only because the ” roadmap” is a dubious recipe for meaningful negotiations.
Nevertheless two caveats must be made.
The first is that the “roadmap” is now the only show in town and as such must at least be tried. The second is that President Bush’s karma may again work wonders. Bush’s opponents have always predicted he would fail: from the presidential election tussle of 2000 to the Afghanistan campaign and the liberation of Iraq, and passing by the biggest tax cut in U.S. history. Each time Bush’s karma decided otherwise. So, why not this time too?
— Amir Taheri is the Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He can be reached through www.benadorassociates.com. A different version of this piece appears in the New York Post and is reprinted with the author’s permission.