Build on Bush's Middle East Progress

Article excerpt

George W. Bush made his greatest Middle East mistake before becoming president. Had he embraced rather than disowned Bill Clinton's desperate efforts to secure an agreement, Israeli and Palestinian leaders might have gone the extra mile to accommodate the new administration. The tragedy of the second intifada might have been averted. The seizure of Gaza by Hamas might never have occurred.

Now the US quest for peace has been placed in the hands of diplomats George Mitchell and Christopher Hill, both veterans of the Clinton period. If they dismiss the work of Bush as he did theirs, the result will probably be failure. Significant steps to move toward a settlement could languish and opportunities to achieve a breakthrough could be ignored.

If Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Ross can learn from Bush's mistake and embrace the positive aspects that came from his administration, they could save themselves many redundant steps on the road to peace. If full-dress negotiations do produce accord, the key would then be "shelving" agreement until the Palestinian Authority (PA) reestablishes sufficient control to implement it.

Bush did pave the way for his successors on some fronts. He declared Yasser Arafat "tainted by terror," opening the way for the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Mazen) to play the lead negotiating role.

Bush was also the first president to publicly endorse a sovereign Palestinian state. He organized the so-called Quartet, consisting of the US, the UN, the EU, and Russia, to backstop the peace process. And he developed a three-stage practical series of steps toward peace, the "road map," beginning with antiterrorism measures and political reform by the PA and a freeze on new settlements by the Israelis. There has been some progress by both sides; much more needs to be done.

Bush also declined to support a "right of return" to Israel for most of the original Palestinian refugees or the complete withdrawal of Israel to its 1967 borders. These will be painful but essential concessions for the Palestinian side.

Exploratory talks between President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began but made little progress. Convinced that his counterpart lacked political gravitas, Mr. Sharon embarked upon a policy of unilateralism, withdrawing from Gaza and a handful of symbolic West Bank settlements.

Abbas and his ruling Fatah colleagues soon suffered a series of blows at the hands of Hamas, internationally branded as a terrorist organization and committed to the destruction of Israel. Hamas upset Fatah in local elections and then in legislative contests on the West Bank and Gaza. …