Two years before he became president, George W. Bush flew over Palestinian territories in a helicopter ride with Ariel Sharon, then Israel's foreign minister. Bush called what he saw below "Palestinian camps" and said, according to Paul O'Neil, who was briefly his treasury secretary: "Looked real bad down there. I don't see much we can do over there at this point. I think it's time to pull out of that situation."
There it was. The United States would disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leaving it to Israelis and Palestinians to battle it out. It was a fateful decision with bloody consequences.
In the last days of his presidency, Bill Clinton attempted to broker a peace agreement between Israel's Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority's Yasser Arafat at Camp David. The negotiations failed. A second intifada, or uprising, broke out in the Occupied Territories (the first stretched between 1987 and 1993.
By spring 2002, blood was flowing in Palestinian and Israeli streets. Bush's hands-off approach had failed. He delivered a pair of speeches -- on April 4 and June 24, 2002 -- that became known as his Road Map for Peace in the Middle East. Five years later, it's the road yet not taken.
First Speech: Scolding Both Sides:
Bush spoke in Washington as smoke rose from Palestinian and Israeli streets. He called on Israelis to stop incursions into Palestinian territories, and the Palestinian Authority to stop supporting terrorism, warning that "suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state."
But he also twice made positive reference to a Saudi peace plan launched in February 2002, which called for Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders in exchange for full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia--and, the Saudi plan implied, the rest of the Arab world.
Second Speech: A Hardening:
By the time of his June speech, Bush dropped references to the Saudi peace plan. He didn't refer to suicide bombings as such, but as "homicide bombings," a clear indication of a more hawkish stance. And he called on Palestinians to get rid of Yasser Arafat and find "leaders not compromised by terror."
While still scolding Israel for its incursions in Palestinian territories, Bush limited his calls on Israeli forces to withdrawing "to positions they held prior to September 28 2000." As violence subsides, he said, "freedom of movement should be restored." But most burdens for peace were placed on Palestinians.
Lack of Clarity:
While Bush's initiative was called a "Road Map for Peace," neither speech actually laid out the "how" of Bush's "what." Bush was comfortable making emphatic statements ("I expect better leadership and I expect results"). He endorsed a two-state solution.
He was less prepared to address the underlying issues provoking Palestinians to violence: The Israeli settlements, the state of siege in the Occupied Territories, the economic stranglehold Israeli strictures kept on Palestinians, whose ability to work in Israel was severely reduced.
Bush also spoke of peace being within reach as long as Palestinians developed democratic institutions on the Western model: Parliamentary institutions, separation of powers, an independent judiciary. Bush saw those ideals as a foundation not only for peace between Israel and Palestine, but as an inspiration for "millions of men and women around the globe who are weary of poverty and oppression."
Those were laudable goals, but also contradictory. Bush had sympathized with "despair of the Palestinian people" for being "treated as pawns in the Middle East." Wasn't he now treating them as inspirational pawns?
Goal to Be Reached by 2005:
"With intensive effort by all," Bush said, "this agreement could be reached within three years from now." Where was the Road Map in 2005? It was no more advanced than when Bush proposed it in 2002.
To the contrary. In an ironic twist on Bush's hopes, Israel began building the separation barrier with the West Bank the very month Bush proposed his Road Map for peace. If the road to peace would be realized, it would have to find a way through that barrier. It hasn't yet. Further, Israel continued to build and people settlements in the West Bank. And the Bush administration's diplomatic push was never sustained.
How Iraq Diverted the Road Map:
"And to those who would try to use the current crisis as an opportunity to widen the conflict," Bush warned, "stay out." But Bush himself widened the conflict a year later with the invasion of Iraq, which further inflamed resentments in the Arab street and fed into long-standing mistrust of Western intentions. The war's evolution from an attempt to create democracy to merely keep a nation from exploding into sectarian mayhem undermined Bush's claim to Palestinians that he expected "better leadership" and "results." By 2007, with a largely ineffective Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, the Road Map was history.
Suicide attacks in Israel have diminished considerably, but Gaza and the West Bank are entirely walled off economically from Israel, and will soon be physically walled off as well. The "abject poverty" Bush referred to in his speeches is a fact of daily life for many Palestinians, who must content with unemployment and severe restrictions on movement. "Palestinians traveling within the West Bank," The New York Times reported in November 2006, " now face 542 obstacles, 83 of which are guarded by soldiers, compared with fewer than 400 a year ago."
--July 9, 2007