Bush’s Gift to Obama

The United States may succeed in sitting the Israelis and Palestinians down for direct talks, but it’s unlikely the negotiations will go far. It’s time for a more creative approach -- one that picks up where George W. Bush left off.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The opening of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, rumored for weeks, is likely to put the spotlight back on U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. That isn’t necessarily a good thing. The Israeli public does not trust him and will be looking for signals of his intentions. If he does not restore confidence in the role of the United States, it is hard to see how American mediation can succeed. Conversely, the Palestinians will be looking for signs that he is willing to lean on Israel, something the "professional left" of his own party — to borrow a phrase from press secretary Robert Gibbs — also would love to see.

No president has ever raised expectations so high with promises to transform the region through personal involvement and fresh ideas. Obama won the office partly by feeding the belief that the Middle East problem could be solved if only Americans had a president like himself who was ready to make a commitment, not one like George W. Bush who, Obama asserted, had ignored the problem.

Almost no one in the region shares Obama’s audacity of hope. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas enters the talks as the reluctant dragon who wishes he did not have to be there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to take some significant steps to achieve a more stable relationship with Israel’s most immediate neighbors, but neither he nor the Israeli public believes that sweeping steps like those advocated by many in the Obama entourage can be taken without unacceptable levels of risk to Israel’s security.

Can Obama scale back his objectives to more limited steps that can be achieved but fall short of ending the conflict forever and transforming the region? Netanyahu is coming to the talks with ideas that can measurably improve the lives of the Palestinian people and move them toward their objective of a sovereign Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. But under the circumstances that exist today, the zone of the attainable for Obama will fall short of the "Clinton Parameters" that Yasir Arafat rejected in 2000 at Camp David, not to mention the more ambitious ideas urged upon this administration by a thousand "progressive" voices.

The Palestinians deeply distrust interim arrangements, and they have frequently asserted that they will not enter another interim agreement. For example, Abbas told then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Aug. 31, 2008, that the Palestinians would accept nothing less than a complete settlement. "Either we agree on all issues, or no agreement at all." His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, reiterated the point three times in December 2009: "We strenuously reject … solutions involving interim arrangements … We have no intention of continuing with the formula of interim arrangement…We will reject every attempt to once again enter … long-term interim arrangements."

But the Palestinian Authority might not hew to this uncreative position if intelligent American mediation led the way. Abbas accepted the Quartet’s Middle East Roadmap in 2003 knowing that it called very clearly and explicitly for an interim arrangement with a Palestinian state having "provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty … as a way station to a permanent status settlement." The Roadmap made this interim Palestinian state Phase II of the process, after Phase I ("Ending Terror and Violence, Normalizing Palestinian Life, and Building Palestinian Institutions")  and before Phase III ("Permanent Status Agreement and the End of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.") During Phase II, the Quartet members are to "promote international recognition" of the provisional state, "including possible U.N. membership." And during this period of the Palestinian state with provisional borders, the Arab states are to "restore pre-intifada links to Israel (trade offices, etc.)" and "revive multilateral engagement" with Israel "on issues including regional water resources, environment, economic development, refugees, and arms-control issues." In other words, the Palestinians have already accepted the idea of "interim arrangements." (Palestinian objections to interim agreements have been a continuing feature of Middle East diplomacy, but the record is replete with past examples where they did in fact agree to the step-by-step approach.)

Will Obama build on this recorded agreement to pass through an interim stage, or will he throw it away in a headlong rush to the dream of a millennial rearrangement?

The Roadmap that the Palestinians accepted is the only document providing a pathway to a Palestinian state ever accepted by all the parties involved in Middle East peace negotiations. It was issued by the Quartet, consisting of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the secretary-general of the United Nations on April 30, 2003. Then it was endorsed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council (including Syria!) in Resolution 1515 on Nov. 20, 2003.  It was endorsed again by the Quartet on March 19, 2010. It was accepted "without any reservations" by Abbas at the Middle East peace summit in Aqaba, Jordan on June 4, 2003. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted it on May 23, 2003, and Sharon’s government, by a majority vote, accepted it on May 25, 2003. Both sides are bound by the Roadmap, and it does not require a fresh endorsement by either. It is one of the signed written commitments of the Palestinian government on which the peace process is based today.

Obama could construct an interim agreement on the "bottom up" approach of Salim Fayyad, who is building the institutions of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank in his capacity as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Israel is already cooperating importantly with this process, by lifting most of the Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks even where there is an element of risk in trusting Palestinian security forces instead of the Israeli army. Netanyahu is prepared to go further in this direction. Here is a concrete foundation on which Obama could stand, instead of chasing an illusion beyond anyone’s reach.

The Security Council could also play a role if either Abbas or Netanyahu were to face internal political obstacles to an interim agreement. Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said on July 3, 2010, that the Arab League will turn to the council to declare an independent Palestinian state if peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians do not bear fruit by September of this year. This could be an entirely unconstructive step if the Security Council called for arrangements that the people of Israel believed would entail intolerable risks, like going back to the 1967 armistice line. But Aboul Gheit also said that taking the issue to the Security Council would be done in reference to Resolution 1515, the 2003 statement endorsing the Roadmap. If a new resolution were to help the parties take the constructive but difficult step of creating an interim Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty, the Security Council could be a plus rather than a minus.

Will Obama take the advice of the pressure-on-Israel enthusiasts who twice led him into the cul-de-sac of the "freeze on natural growth" of settlements? If he does, we are headed for another nasty squall with no constructive outcome. He has another choice, staring right at him in the Roadmap. Does the Roadmap’s provenance in the hated Bush administration make it so repulsive to this administration that miss the opportunity Bush left him?

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