The careful American scripting of the dramatic statements made at Aqaba last week by prime ministers Sharon and Abbas, coupled with President Bush’s own firmly worded commitment, point to Washington’s newfound determination to deal energetically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bush, in particular, has in the course of the past month exhibited an emotional commitment to the cause of Middle East peace that is difficult to explain without reference to the president’s deep felt religious beliefs.
Many Middle East actors appear to be inspired by strong religious beliefs. Many exercise negative influence–for example, the Islamic extremists in Iran, the Islamist terrorist organizations, the American Christian evangelicals who support the Israeli settlement movement, and the religious settlers themselves. When Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat recently incited Palestinian children to grow up to be martyrs, he too was, not for the first time, imposing extremist Islamist beliefs on the conflict. On the other hand, religious extremists are not the only negative actors in the region: witness the legacy of the secular Bathists in Iraq and Syria.
Still, it is not often that an American president tells an Arab leader, as President Bush did last summer, that in pursuing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein he has “a mission from God.” Now Bush appears to address the challenge of providing freedom and democracy for the Palestinian people in somewhat similar religious ideological terms. There is also a personal angle: after Iraq the American president appears to have greater self-assurance and confidence in his international role.
But there are also some hardheaded calculations of realpolitik behind the Bush administration’s newfound devotion to the roadmap and its putative end product.
The first consideration is Iraq. Assessments may differ as to Washington’s chances of making good on its promise to democratize Iraq. But as long as the US is there–whether bogged down in internecine fighting, terrorism and meddling by neighbors, or on the road to stabilizing the country–it appears to have concluded that it must demonstrate active involvement on the Israeli-Palestinian front in order to deflect Arab criticism and buy regional good will.
A second consideration is global. The administration’s war in Iraq split the Atlantic alliance and undermined the position of traditional allies like England and Turkey, where public opinion faulted governmental inclinations to join with the US. A concerted effort at peacemaking in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere answers the need to make amends.
A third consideration is domestic. Private inside polling by the Republicans indicates that the American public will support involvement by Bush, at least up to a point. The American public has little patience with Israeli settlements and wants Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to take peace initiatives. Some sectors of the American Jewish mainstream have begun to express open disagreement with the hard line evinced by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents. Bush, who told that same Arab leader last summer that he had little to risk in getting involved with the Palestinian issue since he gained only nine percent of the Jewish vote in 2000 and could hardly do worse next time, may conceivably now perceive an opportunity to increase his popularity with Jewish voters.
Finally this was, after all, “the plan.” Key administration thinkers like Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice long intended to exploit the victory in Iraq to try to end the Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting. Nor, despite all the rhetoric about being “with us or against us,” could the administration ignore the need to win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim world in the post-9/11 era.
Yet the president’s newfound enthusiasm for this enterprise is almost certain to be constrained by heavy counter-considerations. Bush’s Middle East campaign could easily be shelved if Abbas proves unable to grasp the initiative and lead a successful campaign against Palestinian violence; if Sharon balks at dismantling and freezing settlements and/or if pressure on him precipitates an Israeli governmental and electoral crisis; if regional Arab leaders prove less than forthcoming in rewarding Israel for concessions by expanding relations; and when–not if–the American presidential elections gear up to a point where pressure on Sharon, or merely the threat of failure, forces Bush to give priority to his next Florida campaign.
Bush clearly lacks what might be called a “sophisticated” grasp of the Israel-Arab conflict–indeed, of world affairs in general. Some might argue that a president who is on a mission from God and who can’t pronounce “contiguous” has no business messing with the Palestinian issue. On the other hand, President Clinton’s grasp of the minutiae of the conflict was also no guarantee of success. Ronald Reagan, whose wife believed in astrology, helped bring down the “Evil Empire” and end the Cold War with a simplicity of approach and single-minded determination reminiscent of Bush.
The nature of the leadership on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides remains even more problematic. Abu Mazen’s heart is in the right place, but he has little public support and is constrained by extremists from Arafat to Hamas. Sharon, in the best case, is not really committed to the kind of final status territorial settlement that Abu Mazen, and apparently Bush, champion. Hence the single most important contribution that can now be made by friends of Middle East peace–the rest of the Quartet, the moderate Arab states, American Jewish leaders–is to keep Bush in the game.
Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”