With only 14 months left in its second term, it’s time for a presidential administration to start legacy shopping. While the George W. Bush presidency has left a lasting mark on the American political scene through the Roberts and Alito appointments, Supreme Court nominations are not typically the stuff of historical immortalization. Rather, unrestrained budgets, unchecked executive power, decimated Congressional majorities, fizzled Social Security restructuring, failed immigration reform, and a protracted war in Iraq have provided the definition of this presidency. Now, in an apparent effort to secure a substantial foreign policy win before the end of their term, the Bush administration is attempting to broker a comprehensive Middle East peace deal next month in Annapolis, Md.
Unfortunately, the primary difficulty threatening to derail this round of negotiations is not Israeli and Palestinian intransigence; instead, it is the long term neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the current administration that is jeopardizing the possibility of peace even before the negotiations begin. Successful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be accomplished with a last-minute peace conference after an administration has attained lame duck status. Fifty-nine years of struggle between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be fixed on the cheap; it demands commitment and constant effort to bring these parties to resolution.
The administration hasn’t been without opportunities to take the initiative and provide the leadership necessary to secure peace. The death of Palestinian National Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2004 fundamentally changed the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. No longer could the Israeli and American leadership claim that there was ‘no partner for peace’ and, in fact, both agreed that the installation of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president provided fresh prospects. But for 14 months between Arafat’s death and the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006, the Bush administration consistently failed to seize upon this opportunity.
Simply composing a ‘road map’ for Middle East peace, brokering photo-op handshakes between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Sharm el-Sheik and hosting separate White House visits by the parties does not constitute a serious Middle East peace policy. Rather than finding ways to support the new Abbas administration and seeking a focused path toward peace, the American and Israeli governments both opted to largely ignore Abbas. The result was a Hamas electoral landslide in 2006 that was almost entirely due to frustrations with Abbas’s inability to improve Palestinian living conditions vis-a-vis the Israeli occupation rather than a radicalization of the Palestinian electorate. Only after the Hamas victory did Israeli and American leadership begin to seriously engage with Abbas as a partner in the peace process. Unfortunately, this has proven to be too little too late.
The upcoming Annapolis summit could provide a real opportunity for the Israelis and Palestinians to finally end their decades-long struggle; however, the prospects for peace at this time are dim. This is not because the majority of Israelis and Palestinians do not desire peace, but because the path toward peace requires steadfast attention and dedication by the only entity that both Israelis and Palestinians see as an honest broker – the United States.
The Clinton administration attempted a similar last-minute Israeli-Palestinian peace deal at the end of its tenure and the disastrous breakdown of those hasty negotiations was the start of the current al-Aqsa intifada.
Had the Bush administration learned from the mistakes of the Clinton administration and committed itself to finding peace between the Israelis and Palestinians throughout its time in office, the prospects for peace at this time would be more cheery. However, the peace process cannot be hastily cobbled together by an American administration desperately looking for a legacy in the waning days of its second term. In the end, the historical image of the George W. Bush presidency will not be tarnished by whatever transpires in Annapolis, but failure in these negotiations will have very real implications for the millions of Israeli and Palestinian citizens who will be subjected to further political and military conflict in the region.
Dr. Rob Sauders is an assistant professor of anthropology and history at EWU.