Better a lame-duck President George W. Bush in 2008 than the president who confronted us for the previous seven years. After all, now that Bush is taking fewer initiatives and casting a smaller shadow over our conflicts, it is just possible that less damage will occur and that our leaders will feel free to take independent and welcome initiatives.
Take democratization. Bush did enough damage by helping usher Hamas into power in Palestine (along with militant Islamists and pro-Iranian forces in Iraq and Hizballah in Lebanon). And that damage is lasting: it's hard to conceive of new Palestinian elections without Hamas' participation. But now that Bush has (quietly, with no soul-searching) backed off from his Middle East democratization campaign we at least don't have to worry about new initiatives, and can lick our collective wounds while we figure out what to do with the fruits of his earlier efforts.
This brings us to contacts with Hamas. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert feels free to negotiate ceasefire and economic deals as well as a prisoner exchange with the Hamas leadership without risking Bush's condemnation or veto. Similarly, President Mahmoud Abbas can talk to Hamas and Syria about modes of Fateh-Hamas reconciliation without fear that Bush will cut off aid or even, apparently, that Olmert will cut off peace talks.
It is difficult to say whether the diverse contacts with Hamas will bring any benefit. Moreover, the Quartet conditions regarding genuine diplomatic dialogue (recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past agreements) that were spearheaded by the United States remain in effect. But greater flexibility in developing such contacts certainly can't do any harm.
Olmert enjoys that flexibility with regard to Syria, too. A year ago he would not have dared go public with the Israel-Syria proximity talks held in Turkey lest he violate US policy rules. (Nor would he have dared try to convince the Bush administration publicly that its approach toward Syria was wrong; he's still not trying, but that's Olmert's weakness, not Bush's.) Now, Bush feels obliged to offer faint blessings to the Turkish endeavor. Yet he still won't commit the US to a constructive facilitator role, thereby preventing really serious Israel-Syria talks.
The same thing could still happen with regard to the contacts with Hamas. The Bush administration could at a critical juncture deny Olmert or Abbas the support they need to follow through on their current contacts with the Islamist movement. In other words, there are benefits to Bush's lame-duck status, but there are also limits.
This is likely to be the situation for the next seven months at least. Interestingly, both the Obama and the McCain campaigns are talking about investing a major policy-planning and staff-planning effort now, in parallel with their campaigns and with the November-January interregnum, with the objective of "hitting the ground running" at least with regard to the Middle East. If they succeed, this would end the current "between administrations" period sometime in early 2009 rather than in midyear.
A more intelligent and concentrated US approach to the Middle East on the part of the next administration would be welcome--the sooner the better.- Published 7/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
There is consensus among Arab politicians and analysts that the past seven-and-a-half years of US President George W. Bush have been the worst period of US policy for the Middle East in history. The Palestinian-Israeli process deteriorated into violent confrontations; the occupation of Iraq was disastrous on both immediate and strategic levels while the general trend of radicalization combined with stagnation in economic and social development can be attributed at least partially to the US administration's approach to the Middle East in addition to poor governance by America's allies in power in most Arab countries.
However, there appear to be differing expectations for the remaining period of Bush's tenure, especially since the administration has been showing greater interest in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. That and a few additional new developments are causing some politicians and observers to suggest that there are opportunities to be seized in the remaining months. Apparently Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are among them.
Others believe that Bush is now a lame-duck president and is not in a position to deliver on anything anywhere, especially in the Middle East. For them, this last period until the end of the year might encourage some parties to exploit the weakness of the US administration in order to do things, or avoid doing things, that wouldn't normally be possible.
The last few months have witnessed some unusual developments that are not consistent with the trends of the last few years. Israel and Syria have resumed indirect negotiations in spite of previous American objections. Hamas conducted indirect negotiations with Israel that led to a ceasefire agreement in Gaza. Palestinians and Israelis have been engaged in renewed political negotiations. And there are signs that Iranian-American tensions over Iraq are easing, manifested in a decline in Sunni-Shi'ite tensions and confrontations in Iraq.
These developments have convinced some politicians that Bush and his administration have realized that they will leave office with a disastrous legacy and are now looking for some notable achievements to mitigate the verdict of history. This realization arose with the thorough and significant Baker-Hamilton report, which concluded that the way the American administration has handled the different regional issues is responsible for the disastrous overall deterioration and that the administration needs to reconsider all its policies, especially on Iraq, including the Iranian component, and Palestine.
Others see the new regional developments almost in reverse. To them, these trends have come about not because of any new thinking on behalf of the US administration, but in spite of the US administration. Hence, for example, the Turkish initiative to mediate between Israel and Syria can be explained as being possible only as a result of the lame duck status of the US administration.
In Palestine there are politicians who believe that this is a year of opportunity because of the weakness of the American administration. Hence, perhaps, the timing of Abbas' initiative to renew a reconciliation dialogue with Hamas, something Washington has staunchly opposed in the past but did not, or could not, stand against this time.
Regardless of how these next few months are viewed, however, the level of damage accumulated over the last seven years and the shortage of time left makes it unrealistic to expect any significant breakthroughs, especially since the weakness of the US administration coincides with the weakness of leadership in the region, including both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Significant achievements are possible only if other international powers, i.e., European countries and Russia, can enter and fill the vacuum that the US administration has already left.- Published 7/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The balance of motivation
by Abraham Ben-Zvi
The last time an American president attempted to exert pressure on one of the parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in early 1992. Then, President George H. W. Bush demanded that the Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank as a precondition for receiving loan guarantees it sought from Washington for accommodating new Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Since the settlements issue comprised a core element in Shamir's ideological belief system, he refused to adjust his settlement policy in accordance with the president's preferences--despite the fact that this posture weakened him domestically and contributed to his defeat in Knesset elections that June.
As this example illustrates, whether or not an American president is determined to resort to a policy of coercion in an effort to modify the position of either the Israelis or the Palestinians, in the final analysis what largely impacts the outcome is the balance of motivation between the parties. In other words, does Israel (or the PLO) view the matter under consideration as a core issue, for which it is willing to pay a high price? Indeed, in 1992 Shamir was prepared to lose a parliamentary election rather than acquiesce in a matter inextricably related to his basic beliefs.
This innate ability of the White House to exert effective pressure on the parties in core issues is further reinforced in situations where the president is approaching the end of his tenure. Although the first president Bush confronted Israel in an election year (both in the US and in Israel), the fact that he ran (unsuccessfully) for reelection in 1992 enabled him to retain residual power in seeking to reshape the Palestinian issue. After all, there was the possibility that he would return to the White House with a renewed mandate and a considerable margin of domestic support. Although these prospects apparently failed to impress Shamir in 1992, under different circumstances they could have constrained the local parties, particularly on matters of secondary importance to them.
No such constraints exist during the eighth and last year of a president in the White House, when he is increasingly becoming not merely a lame duck but irrelevant. The only exception to this rule is President Ronald Reagan's decision of December 1988 (i.e., after his successor had already been elected) to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization. This, however, did not involve any bargaining with Israel but exclusively resulted from Yasser Arafat's Geneva announcement in compliance with Washington's long-standing preconditions for recognizing the PLO. By comparison, President Bill Clinton's mediating effort during the Camp David summit of 2000 ended in total failure, and his "bridging proposals" for breaking the deadlock were not heeded by Chairman Arafat.
Similarly, in its twilight months and deprived of almost any domestic support required for pursuing a political initiative, domestic or foreign, the current Bush administration finds itself totally incapable of effectively pursuing its policy of reaching even a framework agreement between Israel and the PLO before the end of its tenure, let alone of concluding an agreement on the principles of a permanent settlement. In fact, under these conditions of extreme vulnerability and weakness the Bush administration shifted gears shortly after the Annapolis conference and de-facto replaced its initial objective of helping to comprehensively resolve the dispute with the goal of merely managing crises and preventing escalation.
This redefinition of the bounds of American diplomacy precludes the use of any coercive measures vis-a-vis either Israel or the Palestinians. Under these revised terms of reference and modus operandi, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's latitude of choice and margin of maneuverability have been severely constrained; she simply cannot even contemplate pursuing more assertive policies. As a result, the focus in American thinking recently shifted from the mapping and consideration of core issues to the mere discussion of new target dates, but without seeking to accompany this procedural preoccupation with any substantive negotiations on at least a few controversial issues.
True, President Clinton similarly avoided, throughout his tenure in the White House, the stick or even threat of punishment in approaching the Palestinian predicament. In the current situation, however, this lack of leverage when the president is nearing the end of his tenure is further augmented by a set of both domestic and regional factors that, taken together, make his position quite pathetic.
Domestically, the Palestinian issue does not stimulate much interest now in American public opinion, and there is hardly any domestic (i.e., congressional) demand that Bush invest his dwindling political capital in a move in this area. In the region, no one appears to expect Washington to do more than go through the motions in an effort to maintain the status quo.
President Mahmoud Abbas is preoccupied with Hamas and with his own political future and is seeking to minimize the risks to himself in his search to extend his tenure and thus delay the election to the presidency of the PLO, which is currently scheduled for January 2009. Against this backdrop, the American policy of managing the scene without bringing to the table difficult core issues sits well with him.
Turning to the Israeli part of the equation, PM Ehud Olmert appears equally content to run out the presidential clock. Distracted by endless interrogations and investigations and by the prospect of primaries in his Kadima party, Olmert is hardly in a domestic position to tackle head-on the thorniest issues that comprise the core of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Furthermore, with his attention divided between the Syrian route, where proximity talks have recently been held with Turkish mediation, the Iranian theater and the fragility of the ceasefire with Hamas (not to mention the Lebanese theater), he will be perfectly content to play possession football with Abbas until the Bush era comes to a close.
Although this current American impotence could, if maintained over time, create a dangerous vacuum and thus invite new powers to assume the role of brokers, for the moment at least it has yet to spill over from the tactical to the strategic level. In other words, despite the fact that Washington recently softened its grip regionally and acquiesced in the opening of an indirect Syrian-Israeli dialogue (which it previously effectively blocked), this should by no means be construed as the end of the American era in the Middle East. In the Syrian context, for example, it is clear that without an active American supportive role that would include compensation to Israel for its withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no such dialogue is likely to culminate in a settlement.
To conclude, for all this vision of inaction and weakness, the American eagle can well resurge after November 4 and embark on a reinvigorated initiative, designed at long last to help mitigate or even comprehensively resolve the Palestinian-Israeli predicament.- Published 7/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Abraham Ben-Zvi is emeritus professor, Department of Political Science, Tel-Aviv University and full professor, Division of International Relations, School of Political Science, the University of Haifa.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Beware the lame hawk
by Akram Baker
When White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino went on The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart asked her if she couldn't, given US President George W. Bush's promise to "sprint to the finish line" of his presidency, make him run a little faster. When it comes to Middle East peace-making (or the complete lack of it), I couldn't agree with Mr. Stewart more. But what effect will Bush's lame duck status have on the region, on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and on Palestinian unity? Potentially, quite a bit.
The question that must be asked first is what kind of lame bird is Bush? While most would consider him a duck, bound to float harmlessly in a pond of tragic misadventures until January 2009, the fact of the matter is that he is still president of the most powerful country in the world. This does not make for a reassuring six months. For Bush junior still has the ability to wreak major havoc wherever he chooses. We saw how he--in full regalia during his visit to the Israeli parliament--can act more like a lame buzzard than a duck.
More than anything else, a US president in his waning days is deeply concerned about his legacy. And in the case of president number 43, we have a problem the size of a 10-gallon Texan cowboy hat. Having failed in Iraq, in Afghanistan, with the economy, on the financial markets, with Russia and China and, most pathetically, in the treacherous waters of Israel/Palestine, Bush recognizes the clear and present danger that he will go down as the least successful and most disliked president in the history of the United States. I don't care what he says about history being his judge; the man has got to do something most stunningly dramatic if he has an ice cube's chance in hell of changing that fact. And the one place where he can still twist arms to his liking is in the hills of Jerusalem and Ramallah.
There at least, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is weaker than an American coffee in Rome. And he in turn is still infinitely stronger than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, if only because Olmert has a real country with a real army. Both are highly susceptible to US pressure. Hence, there remains room, no matter how minute, for maneuver.
Scenario I: The Lame Eagle. Bush wakes up tomorrow and says to his wife, "Laura, I had a dream. I was standing out in the back yard with Ahood and Maamood, and everyone was applauding me, even those vultures from the New York Times. Heck, I may not have sounded like Obama, but I was definitely better than McCain. Heh heh. Well, anyways, I realized that something had finally gone right and so I am going to pull up my socks and make that dream a reality." Bush then gets out of bed and calls Dick and Condi and tells them of his plan. Dick protests and George informs him that the good ol' days are over and its time for him to remember the meaning of "vice". Condi knows what has to be done and with the full authority of the White House behind her, kindly informs the Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of the region (she even asks the Europeans to join her) that the deal is done, and they would best get on with the plan: a complete end to the Israeli occupation combined with the
of Israel's security and the launch of a Palestinian state. Bush is Great. Possible? Yes. Probable? No.
Scenario II: The Lame Hawk. Realizing that he has nothing more to lose, Bush decides that those pesky Arabs (he includes Persian Iran in that equation) have hell to pay for not giving him the respect he deserves. He shuts off the political and financial tap to Abbas (even if it is only an IV drip), letting the PA collapse, winks so hard at Israel's Iranian intentions that one eye becomes permanently shut and watches gleefully as Barack Obama gets seriously worried that there is no way he can clean up the mess he is going to inherit. The silver lining for the Palestinians is that they would be unified again if only in misery. Possible? Yes. Probable? You never know what a desperate man will do.
Scenario III: The Lame Duckling. Dubbya still doesn't get it. His administration has been on autopilot going two miles an hour for so long now, he has forgotten how to fly (if he ever knew). No one takes him seriously in any case, even Abbas. They are all waiting for the great hope from Illinois (except for Ehud who is hoping that Cindy McCain can "donate" a few suitcases of cash to his legal fund). Hizballah consolidates its position in Lebanon, Hamas and Fateh remain locked in a losers' waltz, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad keeps smiling, and like the last seven years, nothing good gets done. Possible? Yes. Probable? Very.- Published 7/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Akram Baker is an independent political analyst and is co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.