Bush Makes Good Start on Mideast Peace Negotiations

Posted July 3, 2003 at 1:28pm

Much criticized for delay in addressing Mideast peace, President Bush now has made a timely and effective beginning. Moreover, if things go wrong, he’s not likely to deserve the blame. Instead of rushing into Mideast diplomacy, Bush spent more than a year building trust in Israel and insisting that the Palestinians needed new leadership before serious negotiations were possible. [IMGCAP(1)]

He backed Israeli insistence that no peace was possible without an end to Palestinian terrorism, and he sided with a Palestinian reform movement disturbed by the corruption of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Now that the Palestinians have installed a prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who is willing to denounce terrorism both in English and Arabic, Israel is willing to take steps toward peace.

What’s more, and also contrary to the judgment of his critics, Bush is pursuing peace multilaterally, pursuing a “road map” jointly agreed upon by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

At the same time, Bush is moving on the road map at a moment when respect for U.S. power is at its zenith — in the aftermath of a decisive military victory over Iraq.

Unfortunately, there is every reason to fear that this peace effort will come to naught, as has every effort to settle the Palestinian dispute in the past 55 years.

Yet, Bush seems to be proceeding in a way that will get him more credit than blame if failure occurs. Trying to make peace — trying hard — is what the world expects of a U.S. president, and Bush is clearly trying.

And, he’s doing so in a clear-eyed way, declaring that the chief enemies of peace — the Palestinian terrorist groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad — have to be dismantled in order for the Palestinians to have the independent state they crave and an end to Israeli domination.

The danger is that Abbas may lack the stomach for confronting the terrorists. He has reached a “hudna” (cease-fire) agreement with them under which they will desist from attacks on Israel for 90 days.

Israel has rewarded Abbas with withdrawal of its forces from Gaza and Bethlehem, the closing down of some illegal Israeli settler outposts on Palestinian land and the lifting of some restrictions on Palestinian travel.

But Israel will not move to “Phase 2” of the road map — recognition of a provisional Palestinian state — until Hamas and other groups are disarmed and dismantled.

That’s a message the Bush administration has delivered in no uncertain terms to Abbas — most recently by Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, at the end of June.

According to a senior administration official, Rice told Palestinian leaders that “a cease-fire is not going to solve this problem for the Palestinians, that it’s going to be necessary for them to dismantle these terrorist networks and that’s what’s expected.

“A breathing space is fine,” this official said. “It gives them time for a political process to work toward those difficult decisions, but eventually those organizations have to be dismantled, not negotiated with. … Hamas as an armed organization has got to go.”

But in conversations with Palestinian leaders, President Bill Clinton’s former chief Mideast negotiator, Dennis Ross, says he encountered reluctance to face the eventual necessity of confronting the terrorists.

At a luncheon last week at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which he heads, Ross reported that when he asked Palestinians on a recent trip what “dismantling the terrorist networks means,” they said, “Well, we hope it can be done peacefully.”

“I said, ‘You think that Hamas, which has built up an infrastructure that allows it to carry out acts of violence and terror — which can be used against you as well as Israel — will just give it up?’ I don’t think so.”

He said Hamas is going to have to be “torn apart,” including its cells, bomb factories, international supply networks, recruiting system and financing.

Ross said he was particularly concerned that if the cease-fire holds for several months and there is no terrorism, “There will be enormous pressure inside Palestinian society to keep the calm and not rock the boat.

“But if they’re not prepared to take apart the infrastructure, they’re not going to see Israel take the political steps” toward a Palestinian state.

Ross said the Bush administration has a “critical responsibility to let all sides know what is required of them. We have to develop a standard of performance that everyone understands the same way. It has to be clear, ‘What does dismantling the settlements mean?’ and ‘What does a freeze on settlements mean?’ It can’t be left to each side’s interpretation.

“Each side will have the tendency,” he said, “to say it’s going to do something and if it doesn’t do exactly what the other side expected the way it was expected, to view it as a sign of bad faith. It won’t take much to undermine the whole process.”

Presented with this warning from an experienced negotiator, the senior Bush official said the administration would do what was necessary, but did not want to become “too mechanistic” about interim understandings and compliance and would rely instead on “how the two sides think things are going.”

That could be dangerous. The administration also has no timetable for when Abbas should take on Hamas, understanding that his security forces need time to build up strength.

However, Ross’ Washington Institute colleague, David Makovsky, expects an early test — “a ticking-bomb test” — when Israeli security gets word that a suicide bomber is on his way to a mission and notifies Palestinian security chief Muhammad Dahlan. “Will Dahlan act? That’s the test,” Makovsky said.

If Dahlan and Abbas don’t act, the “road map” could come to a swift end. Bush won’t be to blame, but sooner or later he’ll have to figure out how to get busy on a new peace plan. That’s America’s job.