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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

May 15, 2003

What is the President thinking about?
(Saul Singer in today's JPOST)

It is next to impossible, to my mind, that President George W. Bush believes that the Arafat-Abbas combo will result in a real Palestinian crackdown against terror or to in serious Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Bush knows what Ehud Barak wrote in this newspaper: "there is no way to make peace as long as Arafat has power" and Arafat retains substantial control over security services and within prime minister Mahmoud Abbas's cabinet.

But if Bush knows this, why go through the motions of embracing Abbas and pushing the road map?

The simple answer is that Abbas and the road map protect Bush from accusations that he is not pursuing peace, until he is able to construct a more serious policy. But the deeper question is, why is Bush satisfied with a placeholder policy, rather than using the opportunity of the victory in Iraq to pursue peace effectively?

There are three explanations: cynical, bureaucratic, and diplomatic.

According to the cynics, Bush has calculated that he does not want to be bogged down in Arab-Israeli peacemaking a year from now when the US election season heats up. Real progress would be a nice feather in his cap, but the downside risks are probably greater.It is hard to argue with this logic, except that Bush does best when he is bold, and trying to muddle along for the next two years is not exactly an electoral asset either.

Theory two is that the US has shown a distinct pattern since 9/11 of taking on one major project at a time, and trying to put the rest on hold until that project is completed. When the US was focussing on toppling the Taliban, Israel was told to be restrained, so as not to interfere. Same during the run up to the war in Iraq.Now America's main project is ensuring that a viable, pro-American government emerges in Iraq. So choosing the next target, such as Iran or Syria, is put on hold, as is pushing Arab-Israeli peace.

Here too, the logic is understandable, if flawed. The terror network knows how to multitask, America must do so as well.

Inability to multitask is immediately sensed and taken advantage of. Bashar Assad, for example, feels that he can lie to Colin Powell about shutting down terror headquarters in Damascus, because by coming there for a meeting in the first place the US showed it wasn't ready to put real pressure on Syria. The same Powell wouldn't dream of going to Teheran, or meeting Arafat, so why go to Damascus?

That said, building a new government in Iraq, taking on Teheran and Damascus, and pressing full bore for Arab-Israeli peace may seem to be too much even for the most talented superpower.But the choice between multitasking and picking one's fights is largely a false one. It is more a question of making policies consistent across the board, not for consistency's sake, but so they are mutually reinforcing.

Tightening sanctions and backing dissidents in Syria and Iran can be seen as biting off more than the US can chew, or the best defense against the meddling of those nations in Iraq. The Arab-Israeli peace process should be viewed in the same way: how can it best be brought into sync with the wider war against the terror network? The first step should be to make sure it is not wildly inconsistent with the wider war.

The Palestinian Authority is more implicated in terrorism than was the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which could argue that it did not support what al-Qaida was doing from Afghan territory. Arafat, by contrast, is personally harboring wanted terrorists in his compound, and the IDF Chief of General Staff just said they have evidence of particular terrorists who were paid jointly by Arafat and Iran.

So long as Bush is plugging the Arafat-Abbas combo, rather than holding out for his own June 24 standard of a "new and different [Palestinian] leadership ... not compromised by terror," he is lowering the standard of the war on terror as a whole. The harm done by this lowered standard for the Palestinians is made worse by the still marked tendency to lump Israel, a democracy under attack, with the PA, a tyranny doing the attacking. The White House continues to intone, in response to practically any question, that "both sides have responsibilities" as if the US does not have a dog in this fight. And that is how the road map is built, taking care to maintain the appearance of exactly equal demands of Israel and the Palestinians.

Which brings us to the third explanation for Bush embarking on a process he has almost no confidence in: diplomatic. Bush understandably feels he owes Britain's Tony Blair for risking all to stand by America's side in Iraq. He also may be grateful for some area of agreement with Europe following the bruising battle over the Iraq war.

But this explanation is more worrisome than it is satisfying. Doesn't it worry Bush that the same Europeans who assailed him on Iraq were the architects of the road map and the Arafat-Abbas gambit? Couldn't it be that Europeans are as off-base now as they were then?It could and they are.

Moreover, being loyal to Blair should not require swallowing the European approach to such a degree. Bush should tell Blair that he completely agrees that Mideast peace should be high on the agenda, but there is no point in resurrecting the failed approach of not demanding enough of the Arab side, and pretending that Israel is equally to blame. Bush, in his meeting with Sharon this week, has the opportunity of correcting all this. He could back Israel's requirement that the Palestinians renounce the demand of "return" to Israel in parallel with Israel's commitment to a Palestinian state. He could say that the Palestinians started this unjustifiable war and it is their job to end it.

He could detail what he expects from the Arab states, rather than speaking vaguely about their responsibilities. In short, he could update a policy that seems to have learned nothing from the failures of Oslo, and bring it in to the post-9/11, post-Saddam era. (all emphases added)