An Opportunity?

In the past month, following the US election and the death of Yasser Arafat, several leading US policy makers and analysts have written opinion pieces, each beginning with a variation on a single theme. Despite repetition, their mantra, “with Arafat’s death and Bush’s reelection a unique opportunity now exists to achieve Middle East peace” is not only insulting–”it is wrong and dangerous.

This mantra is wrong because it ignores the many unchanging realities that continue to impede the path to peace. It is dangerous because by ignoring these realities the policymakers and analysts are merely raising expectations that they will not and cannot fulfill.

Clearly what is implied by this “unique opportunity” is the view that Arafat was the major obstacle to peace and that with his passing that impediment has been removed. Only now, it is assumed, a new and more moderate, i.e. accommodating, Palestinian leadership will emerge that will stop violence and accept Israel’s terms for a settlement.

Implied, as well, is that a second term Bush freed from the pressure of running for reelection and focused on establishing his historical legacy will be more inclined to take the bold steps needed to achieve a resolution of the conflict.

These two assessments are wrong, ignoring as they do the many factors that stood in the way of peace.

1) Arafat was not the obstacle to peace.

The near article of faith that “Arafat is the problem” has been projected by US leaders in an effort to absolve themselves of responsibility for failing to achieve peace since 1993. Democrats refuse to accept that they failed to aggressively build on the possibilities created by the Oslo process and then mismanaged the Camp David and post-Camp David period. Republicans use the Arafat scapegoat mantra to divert attention from their abject surrender to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s insistence on one-sided terms that aborted the Mitchell, Tenet, Zinni, and “Road Map” peace efforts.

For Democrats, it was “Barak offered Palestinians the best deal ever, Arafat refused and resorted to violence.” For Republicans it has been “Sharon is a man of peace, Arafat must go.

The reality of the last decade, however, is more complex. Despite his flaws, it was Arafat who led Palestinians to accept the historic compromise negotiated at Oslo and Cairo. No other Palestinian leader would have weathered stiff Palestinian opposition to these compromises and won the day.

But after seven years of “peace,” Palestinians were both despairing and angry. In an effort to appease their own opponents of peace, successive Israeli Prime Ministers throughout the 90’s allowed settlements in the West Bank to double and built an extensive network of Jewish-only security roads to connect these settlements to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The land confiscation required for these massive projects and Israel’s ever tightening security procedures crippled the Palestinian economy doubling unemployment and poverty levels throughout the occupied land.

While attentive to legitimate Israeli fears of terrorism, the US failed to understand the impact that these repressive Israeli policies were having on the Palestinian side. Seven years of one-sided compassion (for Israel) and one-sided pressure (on the Palestinians) took a toll.

Then came Camp David, the unprepared for, mismanaged summit that ultimately ended the Oslo Peace process. What Barak offered at Camp David while better than expected, failed to meet even minimum Palestinian requirements. Barak insisted on keeping huge settlement blocs in the heart of the West Bank and the roads connecting them to Israel proper. This would have cut the West Bank into pieces. Barak further insisted on keeping control of the Jordan Valley, West Bank water resources, and all access to and egress from the Palestinian lands, while refusing any compromise on the Palestinian “right of return.” At the end of the day, while Barak’s offer could conceivably be called the first deal that any Israeli Prime Minister had made on final status issues, it was by no means the best deal.

Arafat couldn’t accept these terms, and neither could any future Palestinian leader, short of instituting a regime of massive repression leading to a Palestinian civil war.

While US policy makers and analysts continue to point to Arafat’s “no”, what they refuse to consider are the multiple Israeli “nos” that resulted in the Arafat rejection. It was argued that Israel could not give on these issues (settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, West Bank water, control of border, refugees, etc.) without risking a civil war. But they were willing to trade this for a Palestinian civil war as a way to ease Israeli resistance. The weakest party, the Palestinians, were therefore pressed to take on the biggest and most difficult jobs and make still more concessions. This Arafat would not do, nor would any future Palestinian leader.

2) Bush’s Second term doesn’t free him

As the recent controversy over the 9/11 intelligence reform bill demonstrated, the President has only a fragile majority in a divided congress. Bush simply doesn’t have a free hand in his dealings with the hard line conservative leadership in his own party.

If the President wants to pursue key elements of his domestic agenda, he will need the continued support of the likes of House Majority Leader, Tom Delay, who, unlike the President, is profoundly anti-Palestinian. DeLay’s hostility was evident last week when he forced the White House into a bizarre compromise on Palestinian aid. While Bush had promised $20 million to the Palestinian Authority as a support gesture to help with election preparations, DeLay would only agree to the request on the condition that the $20 million be used by the PA to pay a utility bill owed to Israel.

Bush may not have to run again, but DeLay and other conservative Republicans will be running in 2006 and their fundamentalist support base expects them to be uncritically supportive of the government of Israel.

Now Bush could, like his father, decide to get tough even with some in his own party and apply balanced pressure in the pursuit of peace. I had hoped that he might do this, but his recent full embrace of the neo-conservative gospel and the view of Israeli hardliner Natan Sharansky are cause for great concern.

According to the new Bush formula as it was articulated last week, “Achieving peace in the Holy Land is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement. This approach has been tried before without success. As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy.”

This is a dangerous position for the White House to take, mimicking as it does, views expressed or espoused by Benjamin Netanyahu a decade ago. According to this formula, the problem is not Israeli behavior–”occupation, human rights violations, humiliation of Palestinians–”the problem is the absence of Palestinian democracy. And so, in this view, Israel is absolved of all wrongdoing, and the US is absolved for its reluctance to press Israel and its failure to be an honest broker. The problem is with the Palestinians. When the victims reform, peace will be possible.

In short, the early signs of a “freer” second term are not promising.


Despite the sad reality that the “opportunity” is probably not an opportunity for peace, the Palestinians still need to go through this critical exercise of conferring legitimacy on a new leadership. Their house, though occupied and dismembered, should be in order, and their leaders should be accountable to a popular mandate.

The degree to which the US can get Israel to create space for this election to occur is a good thing. In this sense it is an opportunity. But if the US is not willing to do more to press Israel, then expectations should not be raised much higher than this, because dashed expectations can be painful and potentially explosive.