President Bush’s Palestine Speech: A Critique and Optimistic Antidote POLICY BRIEF | Daniel Levy | July 20th 2007

On July 16th, President Bush delivered a lengthy pronouncement on an updated Middle East peace policy. Originally, it had been planned to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the president’s June 24th 2002 speech committing the United States to a two-state solution and, perhaps more notably, advocating a Palestinian regime change and imposing a series of preconditions before any political process would be launched. Not surprisingly, those preconditions were never met and five years have passed without a peace process.

The regime change agenda, however, was more successful and in ways that one imagines the Administration had not intended. The Administration probably cannot claim Yasser Arafat’s death as one of its achievements, but what followed in no small measure was the product of a U.S.-driven policy. After Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Arafat as Palestinian Authority president, neither he nor his Fatah party were assisted in producing any political deliverables to the public for which they could claim credit. Parliamentary elections were advanced and Hamas swept a clear majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Given the score card after five years it might have been reasonable to expect a policy re-think. However, reason has continued to be sidelined, and the July 16th speech was more of the same with even less chance of success.

More of the Same

The speech can perhaps best be characterized as pushing down softly on the accelerator of a failed Middle East policy. The president continued to promote deepening divisions among the Palestinians, insist on pre-conditions to a two-state solution and display an unwillingness to outline his own parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian endgame deal (instead, dropping hints regarding the territorial issue, such as “mutually agreed adjustments,” while refusing to explicitly refer to the 1967 lines or offer any guidance on Jerusalem or refugees). Even the $190 million dollars of money pledged to the new PA government was mostly a repackaging of old commitments.

The list of preconditions that even the new U.S.-backed Ramallah government would have to fulfill in order to “have a state of their own” was as familiar as it was unrealistic, including the guaranteed show-stopper “dismantle their (terrorist) infrastructure.”

It is hardly surprising that historian and Shalem Center Fellow (a Jerusalem-based Institute established by Benjamin Netanyahu that is sympathetic to neo-conservative views), Michael Oren, described the speech as follows in a Wall Street Journal op-ed,

Mr. Bush has not backtracked an inch from his revolutionary Middle East policy. Never before has any American President placed the onus of demonstrating a commitment to peace so emphatically on Palestinian shoulders…the bulk of his demands were directed at the Palestinians…Mr. Bush set unprecedented conditions for Arab participation in peace efforts.

The democracy agenda continues to be pursued, albeit less assertively than in 2002. In that speech, democracy was mentioned six times compared to the one reference this time around. The very mention of democracy sounds rather hollow given the policy of boycotting the democratically elected government and the support offered to a new government of dubious legality. As for new Palestinian elections, according to Nathan Brown, an expert on Palestinian reform and Arab constitutionalism at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this would be “absolutely and positively unconstitutional…The Basic Law was amended in 2005…to fix the term of the PLC at four years. Abu Mazen can issue a decree with the force of law, but he cannot amend the constitution. Only 2/3 of the PLC can do that…There is not the slightest degree of ambiguity.”2

The increasing use being made of the unreformed bureaucratic organs of the PLO and its old guard by the Ramallah Government as a source of legitimacy and legality also hardly accords with the reformist agenda so beloved in Washington.

And it is indeed on the subject of internal Palestinian politics that the current policy is on most shaky ground. If the 2002 speech encouraged a regime change that eventually brought Hamas to power, the new speech may well drive Palestinian politics towards a period of even greater chaos that could create a space for al-Qaeda look-alikes to gain a foothold.

Alistair Crooke, former security adviser to the EU’s Javier Solana, a ceasefire negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians with a wealth of on-the-ground experience, now heading an NGO, Conflicts Forum, describes the situation as follows:

The problem for Hamas is that its constituency – the rank and file – and the wider Islamist movement have now embarked on a period of introspection. What is apparent – and this can be ascertained on any number of Islamist websites – is that the mainstream Islamist strategy of pursuing an electoral path to reform is now being questioned.

The U.S. president continues to mistakenly conflate Hamas with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and, in so doing, almost guarantees the failure of his approach. In Iraq, U.S. policy is belatedly focusing on internal political reconciliation, but in Palestine it is still, sadly, all about deepening divisions.

The two-state solution that the president claims to support will need to deliver basic security and must be seen as legitimate by both Israel and the Palestinians in order to have a chance of being sustainable. That cannot be based on an irreconcilable Palestinian political division. Pursuing a peace effort under these conditions will likely have a de-stabilizing effect and maximize the irredentist push-back in the Palestinian camp against what will anyway be a difficult set of Palestinian deliverables.

What was New and How it Might be Used

The one new announcement in the speech was that a meeting chaired by Secretary Rice would be held in the Fall. Despite White House efforts to lower expectations, the president’s call has been widely touted as the convening of an international peace conference and is being seen as a litmus-test of Administration diplomatic virility. For Secretary Rice this may become one of the last chances to make a diplomatic mark in the region. Her undoubted desire to avoid a huge flop in the Fall is the point of departure for devising a strategy that attempts to constructively leverage the president’s speech.

The U.S. clearly will want key regional and international players at the Conference table, a fact that creates an opening – should they choose to use it — for Arab states and other Quartet partners to negotiate terms of reference. This would be the moment for the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and the majority of European states who are uncomfortable with current U.S. policy to articulate and bargain over a new approach. It is even conceivable that Secretary Rice herself would welcome a strong stand on the part of her interlocutors in order to steer the president toward a more realistic far-reaching policy.

The model for diplomatic efforts should be the Madrid Conference of 1991. Secretary Rice would have to cast herself in the role of James Baker, this time with the additional challenge of having to convince her boss. At the closing of that Madrid Conference, Secretary Baker said, “The United States is willing to be a catalytic force, and an energizing force, and a driving force in the negotiating process.”4 Secretary Rice would have to adopt that mantle and be all of those things and more. Baker shuttled for eight months around the region putting together the Conference, negotiating the terms of reference for Madrid, which appeared in the letter of invitation and to which all sides agreed. He succeeded in creating a peace process that brought together Israel, the Palestinians, all the neighboring states and an additional ten Arab countries, none of whom had formal relations with Israel. The Fall should not be a hard deadline; the meeting could be postponed if more time for preparatory shuttling is needed.

The substance of the Madrid terms of reference contained four elements that were crucial to its gathering and are relevant for today. First, the effort was comprehensive, involving not only the Palestinians and Jordanians (not yet at peace with Israel), but also the Lebanese and the Syrians. Second, the terms for engagement represented at the time a breakthrough, namely the land-for-peace formula with a comprehensive settlement to be based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. It sounds trite today but was a big deal in the Shamir years. Third, the letter of invitation provided a timetable for an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement. Finally, Madrid brought Israel and the broader Arab world together, holding out the prospect of regional peace and acceptance that is so vital for Israelis. It is often forgotten that Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia was in attendance at Madrid.

The Conference set in motion five multilateral regional working groups to build confidence between Israel and the Arab world. Politicians and experts met to discuss the environment, economic developments, water, arms-control and regional security and refugees in such places as Muscat, Rabat, Doha, and Tunis. Those groups first convened, in Moscow, less than three months after the Madrid bash.

A similarly ambitious approach calibrated to today’s realty is what Secretary Rice should be encouraged to pursue. Even if her appetite for such a mission is questionable, the president’s speech, perhaps unintentionally, offers an opening. Europe and the Arab states should interpret the call for a Conference as an invitation to start negotiating a contemporary version of the Madrid letter of invitation. Sure, such an approach would contain a hefty dose of chutzpah, and yet it is the best option under today’s circumstances.

The negotiating position of the original Quartet partners, as well as the Arab Quartet, could for instance include:

  • Detailed terms of reference for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks;
  • Provisions for a comprehensive process that includes Syria;
  • A reasonable timetable for progress and completing the talks;
  • Modalities for implementing the Arab peace initiative.

Israel would undoubtedly have its own negotiating positions and demands, and rightly so. But that is precisely the point, for we would finally be in a place where the real issues are being discussed, not avoided.
Europe in particular could finally step up its diplomatic game. As a vital player and payer, it should define political conditions for its involvement. Remember, a handful of European states (and even just one would have been sufficient) insisted that the boycott of the PA be maintained by all the EU, so why should a handful of determined EU member states not flip the equation and veto any EU participation in the Conference if certain conditions are not met? Saudi Arabia too, as probably the most sought-after attendee from a U.S. and Israeli perspective, has a rather nifty negotiating hand should it wish to deploy a diplomatic effort. The Bush speech suggested that Arab deliverables to Israel be front-loaded, and even defined four pre-conditions for Arab attendance. Rather than enter a meaningless to and fro regarding, for instance, the level of attendance (leaders, ministers, or local ambassadors) or inducing diplomatic gridlock, certain Arab states could actually engage in an agenda-setting exercise here.

The alternative would be for this Fall’s meeting to resemble the January 2003 conference on Palestinian reform that was convened in London – an eminently forgettable experience.

One remaining question is how the Conference should deal with the elephant in the room – namely Hamas? Here too, the Madrid model may offer guidance. At the time, Israel and the PLO still did not recognize each other and Israel refused to talk to the PLO or to have them officially in attendance. A formula was concocted whereby there would
be a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, the Palestinian members of which could be claimed by Israel to not formally represent the PLO, but who themselves insisted that they were doing everything in coordination with the exiled PLO leadership.

Third parties would have to engage in a side-dialogue with Hamas in advance of the Conference, and essentially address Hamas interests or positions in the envisaged negotiations. Ideally President Abbas would play this role, but he is currently busy climbing higher up the “no return to unity” ladder. Exclusion of Hamas is very unlikely to deliver security, sustainability or legitimacy to any peace process.

Third parties, including Arab states and perhaps Turkey, South Africa or even Europeans, could lead two parallel back-channels. One channel would work towards Palestinian internal reconciliation. The other channel would focus on bringing Hamas into a broader process, including: terms for a mutually binding ceasefire with Israel, normalization of access to and from Gaza and benchmarks toward international engagement. Of course, an inclusive approach regarding Syrian participation would have a facilitating knock-on effect in this regard. At least on the Hamas issue the Israelis may sober up prior to their U.S. friends. All this constitutes an ambitious agenda, but one more realistic and relevant to the region than the current impoverished menu of Middle East meddling on display.

Daniel Levy is a Senior Fellow at The New America Foundation and The Century Foundation. He formerly was as an adviser in Israeli Prime Minister Barak’s office. He was an official negotiator and lead Israeli drafter of the informal Geneva Initiative peace plan.

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