Bush Lacks Plan for Israeli-Palestinian Issues

Charles Krauthammer
Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist based at The Washington Post.

February 20, 2003

So what about the other Mideast problem, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute?

Is the Bush administration so preoccupied with Iraq that it doesn't have the time or attention span to be planning now for what will happen once the war is over?

Or is President George W. Bush convinced that the problem is so difficult, the parties so far apart, the animosities now so deeply felt, that there is no way to make progress in the foreseeable future and therefore no political gain in it for him?

Or has the administration bought the Ariel Sharon view of the dispute - that a prolonged show of force against the Palestinians is necessary before any progress can be made?

No matter how you answer those questions, this much is clear: The administration seems to have no plans to deal with the Israel-Palestinian dispute. But it's hard to see how the United States can invade an Arab country, even with the best of intentions, and not deal with that festering sore. Much of the good in the Arab world that results from getting rid of Saddam Hussein could be negated by continuing Palestinian-Israeli violence.

The first Bush administration understood that the 1991 Gulf War would alter the alignment of forces in the region and provide a new opportunity for the peace process. It launched the Madrid initiative immediately after the war ended. The results were substantial: the Oslo accords, the Rabin peace plan, the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

But this Bush administration has a fundamentally different approach. There are some officials in key positions of power who believe that the entire peace effort was a mistake. They believe the Palestinians, under Yasser Arafat, are not ready to make peace with Israel. There are other officials who believe that the effort is just not worth the political investment of the president; that the chances of making progress, even after a successful war against Iraq, are so dim that it makes no sense for Bush to put his prestige on the line, especially as the 2004 election cycle is about to begin.

But there are also those in the administration and outside who believe that the United States must be ready to make a new effort to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Among the outsiders is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is paying a high political price for supporting Bush on Iraq and will need some help in return.

While it's hard to accept the European view that the Palestinian problem is at the heart of all instability in the Mideast, it's equally dubious that it makes sense to allow Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to use his iron fist indefinitely.

The assumption behind the Mideast peace process going back 25 years and spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations was that if you were not trying to push the process forward it would inevitably go backward. But this administration has abandoned that assumption.

The Bush administration's pro-Sharon policy has been based largely on its belief that Arafat is incapable of making peace. And it's hard to argue that is wrong. But war in Iraq could have such a profound effect on the entire region, for better or worse, that all assumptions need to be questioned. And there are at least some signs that the Palestinians are moving to limit Arafat's power. Last week he agreed to appoint a prime minister, a key Bush demand.

Some observers say Bush is not only personally close to Sharon but also shares his views about Arafat. Others familiar with the president's thinking say that is wrong. Bush knows Sharon is highly unlikely to make the compromises necessary for a peace agreement. Gut politics may be a stronger factor in explaining the administration's behavior. Bush remembers only too well that his father hurt himself politically by pushing the Mideast peace process well into the 1992 election year.

Whatever the motivation or merits, Bush's inclination not to involve himself in the Israel-Palestinian dispute is about to run smack into his plans to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

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