Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

June 25, 2002

Bush: Planning in the Whirlwind

It's not so much that the details of the Bush plan are faultier than some other plan some other leader might have devised. The bigger question is why an American president who upon assuming office seemed to understand that American micromanagement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a losing game is now so eager to impose any plan at all on this intransigent conflict. Shucks, several administration spokespeople came right up to the edge of blaming former President Clinton for the current conflict because he was so eager to get a legacy-building agreement that he pushed too hard and exposed points of contention that the parties simply weren't ready to resolve yet.

So now here is the Bushlet laying down conditions and declaring that he's going to be hands-on in this dispute and holding out the carrot of IMF/WorldBank/EU/Russian/"donor community" goodies if the Palestinians and Israelis will be good little boys and girls and get their peace act together. Why would Dubya be so eager to jump into the tar pit that has so stymied recent American presidents?


One can understand the impulse to want to do something – almost anything – to bring the current wave of killing to at least a temporary end. But among the complicating factors for the administration is that the United States has seldom had less leverage in the region. The fundamental reason so many government officials want to intensify American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, of course, is that the administration is eager to launch some sort of attack on Saddam Hussein's odious regime in Iraq. State Department and other officials believe it is important for the success of such an operation to have allies – or at least non-opponents – in the Arab world, both for symbolic reasons and for practical reasons involving permission to base U.S. troops in Arab countries near Iraq.

The tacit price for such permission – although none of the Arab countries have said so explicitly or moved very far toward endorsing an attack on Iraq – seems to be American pressure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in the direction of a separate Palestinian nation-state.

Unfortunately, the palpable desire of the United States and other countries for some kind of resolution strengthens the hand of the most militant elements among the Palestinians, who desire not a separate state but damage to Israel for now and some hope for the destruction of Israel in the future. It also strengthens the hand of elements in Israel who want Ariel Sharon to be "stronger" in dealing with Yasser Arafat.

Insofar as the United States badly wants a deal, those in a position to block a deal, or to make demands on the United States to get them to go along, are strengthened in proportion to U.S. desperation.


President Bush implied that there must be reform and new leadership before the U.S. will sign off even on a provisional Palestinian state. But most of the pressure on Yasser Arafat has been from more militant factions rather than from the "give peace a chance" camp (if there is one). How likely is it that "moderates" will emerge at the bidding of the "international donor community?"

By continuing suicide bombings, militant Palestinian groups are not only able to do concrete damage in Israel, disrupting ordinary life and harming Israeli morale, they are also able to frustrate Great Satan America, exposing it as ineffectual. From the militant Palestinian perspective, the current campaign has been successful; it has been disruptive and caused more Israeli casualties than in previous conflicts. While a suicide bombing requires some resources and organization, it can be carried out by a small group of people, making complete control almost impossible.

President Bush must surely have been aware of another danger – that by virtually demanding that the provisional Palestinian state be led by somebody other than Yasser Arafat he would firm up support for Arafat among Palestinians. Indeed, that was the first impulse of Saed Erekat, CNN's favorite "Palestinian negotiator."

"Arafat is the elected Palestinian president, he's called for elections next year, and we don't see why the United States should be in the business of choosing Palestinian leaders for the Palestinian people."

Things may shake out differently, of course. Arafat, one of this generation's most persuasive proofs of the general rule that revolutionaries should not be rulers, might surprise everybody and decide to step aside gracefully. However, as David Plotz noted in a piece for Slate a few months ago the ranks of potential credible successors to Arafat is rather thin.

Arafat has never groomed a successor; indeed, like many leaders he has rather actively discouraged any talk of a successor and has quashed potential rivals systematically. The old-timers are, well, too old and gray. Those in the next generation – Plotz names Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti – control small regional groups and don't have sufficient prestige or profile to be viewed as credible successors yet. Hamas is led nominally by the aging Sheik Ahmed Yassin. None of the younger Hamas leaders has much of a profile, and it seems unlikely that Dubya would be pleased if an election resulted in a Hamas victory.


I don't know whether or not Arafat can control the murder/suicide bombers or not, and I question whether anybody who isn't holed up in his compound in Ramallah with him is able to say anything very credible on this score. But whether Arafat willed it or not, the bombings intensified last week, temporarily putting the Bushlet's speech on hold.

The Israeli response – military incursions into and (as seems to be the case now) open-ended occupation of some West Bank territories – reflects determination tinged with desperation. From the Israeli perspective the previous military actions almost have to be viewed as unsuccessful. They have not stopped the murder/suicide bombings except for brief periods, and no moderate Palestinian leaders have stepped forward to replace Arafat and develop into potential partners in a genuinely peaceful settlement.


The Israeli plan to construct a fortified fence or barrier between Israel proper and the Palestinian territories looks like desperation on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It is significant that the main opposition to the idea comes from the Israeli right, which sees partition as a possible prelude to giving up the existing Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

While there is some precedent for successful partition plans – partitioned Cyprus has been reasonably stable and peaceful for a quarter-century – the idea has shortcomings.

The Cyprus partition was the result of a mutual negotiated settlement between peoples who were tired of conflict. The Israeli fence will be built in the midst of a conflict that militant elements on the other side have little incentive to end. The Israeli economy has traditionally employed many Palestinian workers and has already suffered during the current troubles. A partition that made border crossings by workers more difficult would be an economic setback. And even if a fence prevented infiltration, Israel has a lengthy seacoast that could be vulnerable to determined terrorists.


Discussion of confounding or frustrating details that make "peace now" seem unlikely might divert attention from a larger problem with the Bush initiative. The desire to jump-start a peace process with a speech from the President of the United States strikes me as thoroughly unrealistic. That's not the way things generally happen in that part of the world.

The Israeli-Egyptian agreement implemented at Camp David in 1979, and the Oslo agreements of 1993 followed months of secret negotiations by the affected parties rather than pressure from the United States. In fact, the United States was brought in only when the deal was all but done. And, of course, U.S. taxpayers are still paying for the privilege of Presidents Carter and Clinton feeling good about themselves.

It has generally been the case in the Middle East that the U.S. can help to tie up loose ends when the parties want an agreement. In the past it has been unable to make them want an agreement.


With all this as a background – and with most of the pressure on both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat coming from people who want them to be more unyielding – it is difficult to see how the United States can pull a peace rabbit out of a hat. At this juncture, would the promise of a provisional Palestinian state, whatever its shape – what Cato Institute foreign policy analyst Ted Carpenter calls the partially pregnant solution – cause either side to race to the negotiating table? It seems most unlikely.

Does this sound like defeatism? To me it seems like simple realism. The United States is powerful and influential, perhaps more so than any country in history, but it can't do everything. If anything, U.S. eagerness for an agreement – or a general perception that sooner or later the U.S. will come in with money and power when it's had enough – provides a distinct disincentive for either side to try to work with the other.

U.S. eagerness gives leverage to those least interested in a relatively peaceful outcome, ironically enough. And the impression of U.S. inevitability leads those on both sides to avoid thinking about assuming full responsibility for the outcome of their actions; the U.S. will eventually come in and fix things, passing lots of money around in the process.

Ironically enough it might even be the case that a U.S. announcement that it wants no part of the conflict or of attempts to resolve it might push at least a few Israelis and Palestinians into thinking that if they don't settle the thing it will never be settled and lives will continue to be lost. There's no guarantee that perception would lead to a settlement. But a settlement that isn't based at least in part on the perception of self-interest by the warring parties – as distinguished from the stated interests of the United States and the "international community" has almost no chance of success.

Recognition of the limits of one's power may be essential to preserving it rather than frittering it away. Dubya seems to be assiduously frittering away the power and credibility he had in the first few months after 9/11. Maybe I should be pleased.

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