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
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
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. …