The Bush Administration and its Policy on Palestine: Opportunities Scorned
The release of the Bush administration's National Security Strategy in September 2002 remains a significant diplomatic and strategic initiative. This strategy articulates a clear ideological framework for U.S. foreign policy in the post-9/11 era, and justifies the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and retroactively, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and destruction of the Taliban regime. The preemptive approach that characterizes the strategy also encompasses nonmilitary methods of warfare, as evidenced by the increasing pressure being applied to Syria.
The National Security Strategy primarily seeks to counter threats to the U.S. by retaining American influence and overwhelming military superiority. The strategy also possesses utopian rhetoric; the pursuit of "human freedom" defined as "democracy, development, free markets and free trade." In reality, it does not constitute a radical departure from American diplomacy throughout the 20th century. Similar strategies were identified at the very beginning of the Cold War, including the option of U.S. troop deployment for the "containment" of Soviet expansion. Washington's policies sought to ensure American hegemony and prevent regional instability by shoring up favored regimes through economic, social and political reform - thereby reducing the threat of communist infiltration. Governments capable of creating and sustaining such conditions were critical to success . American intelligence services, therefore, attempted to change internal environments to suit Washington's Cold War and national security interests. Substitute "terrorist" for "communist" and Bush's strategy of 2002 is identical to the Cold War policies of his predecessors.
This essay seeks to examine Bush's tactics toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of the National Security Strategy. The Bush administration is commonly accused of having no coherent approach to the conflict, while possessing a pro-Israel bias that negates possible Palestinian engagement with the administration. In reality, both of these accusations can be refuted on examination of American policies in practice. Opportunities for Palestinian engagement with the administration, moreover, have existed. Even after the April 14, 2004 exchange of letters between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Administration is further engaging in an attempt to guide the Palestinian National Authority's response to the disengagement plan. What all commentators agree upon, however, is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, interchangeable with the Arab-Israeli conflict until 1967, has been especially problematic for Washington. Describing it as an albatross around the neck of successive presidential administrations would not be an exaggeration. Nevertheless, disengagement is not an option any American administration has considered - each has ultimately engaged, in varying forms and with wildly divergent results.

The Road Map

The Bush administration's greatest contribution to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been its adoption of the Road Map in May 2003. Indeed, the strategy stands out as the most substantive initiative undertaken by an American president toward resolving the conflict, and represents an opportunity for the Palestinian leadership to work toward statehood. The document's substance, with its focus on preventing terrorism and developing democracy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is largely a practical interpretation of the 2002 National Security Strategy and was created in consultation with, as opposed to obtaining the prior approval of, both parties. In retrospect, though, the Road Map soon became a declaration of intent rather than the blueprint for a superpower determined to stamp its authority upon the process - neither side adhered to its obligations, and the U.S. was unwilling to coerce them into doing so. When the process began to derail and the Abu Mazen government collapsed, the American monitoring coordinator, John Wolf, went on extended leave, and active American engagement was scaled back. The U.S. can prod, plead and encourage, but ultimately it cannot make peace for the belligerents themselves.

Palestinian Responsibilities

PNA responsibilities, according to the National Security Strategy and under the terms of the Road Map, are clear and predictable; financial, judicial and executive reform is required in parallel with a concerted effort to eradicate terrorism. The significance attached by Bush to the issue of terrorism should not be dismissed, in light of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and U.S. policy toward the PNA soon focused upon the relationship between Palestinian militants and PNA President Yasser Arafat. According to White House statements in early April 2002, Arafat had failed to consistently oppose and confront militant groups, and Bush ultimately decreed that, as a result, Arafat would be marginalized.
The degree to which Arafat would be undercut was soon debated; discussions were fierce and split along the administration's characteristic fault lines. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney advocated a strategy that would undermine Arafat, and lead to an entire change in leadership. Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet opposed this, arguing that there was no viable alternative to Arafat. Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice eventually arrived at a compromise; the creation of the position of prime minister to provide alternative Palestinian leadership, and a prohibition on the Sharon government on either harming or expelling Arafat. Thereafter, contact with Arafat and his associates ceased. Once Mohammed Rashid had advocated in Washington on Arafat's behalf; now all official contact between the administration and Arafat's inner circle was conducted via third parties.
Thereafter, the administration attempted to streamline the Palestinian security services and marginalize militant groups. The Road Map laid down a strict timetable on questions such as incitement, the arrest of individuals, confiscating illegal weapons, and the consolidation of the security apparatus into three services reporting to an interior minister. The security "pillar" of the Road Map's monitoring mechanism further institutionalized Palestinian security responsibilities and U.S. oversight of the structure embodied an unprecedented, proactive monitoring approach, conveying the seriousness attached by the Bush administration to Palestinian security reform.
The Road Map was a risk for the Bush administration. Failure to achieve such clearly stated objectives would be evident to all and difficult to forget. This has been the stark difference between Bush and his predecessors. The Clinton Plan, the last American effort in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, cannot compare. The plan was released only weeks before Clinton's departure from the Oval Office, while the Road Map will haunt the Bush administration throughout the rest of its first term and follow it into a second, should the administration win re-election.

Bush and Sharon: An Opportunity for the Palestinians

The most intriguing facet of Bush's strategy, however, has been the approach to U.S.-Israeli relations. Consistent with the perspective of the National Security Strategy, Sharon was expected to take steps supporting "the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state," which in itself was fairly vague. Both the National Security Strategy and the Road Map attempted to elaborate by stipulating an Israeli army withdrawal to pre-intifada positions (should Palestinian security reforms bear fruit), the cessation of settlement building and a commitment to ensuring Palestinian freedom of movement once violence subsided. Nevertheless, demands that the government of Israel support the emergence of a viable and credible state ensured that Sharon's policies - in their broadest sense - have been under constant U.S. scrutiny. This explains why the construction of Israel's separation barrier has emerged as the preeminent concern for the Bush administration, increasingly so after the international community voiced objections to the barrier's trajectory and the issue's referral to the International Court of Justice. That the Sharon government is now under more intense American scrutiny than the government of Yasser Arafat and his Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei' may surprise many who feel US policy tilts toward the interests of Israel.
Beginning with Powell's declared support for a Palestinian state in November 2001, the direction of American strategy has been startling. While obviously linked to the wish for Arab endorsement of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Powell's statement released the genie of independent Palestinian statehood from the bottle. The motive may not have been pure, but its impact was nothing short of a jolt for Israel - thereafter, Israeli government support for the establishment of a Palestinian state was inevitable. A corollary to this has been U.S. interest in the stability of Sharon's coalition, although not to the extent that American engagement has been cowed by it. The release of the May 23, 2003 joint statement by Powell and Rice acknowledging the Israeli government's concerns about the Road Map should be seen in this light.
Any relationship between a U.S. presidential administration and Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel would always be strained and affords the Palestinian leadership an opportunity to vie for the attention of American policymakers, including the president himself. The White House possesses an institutional memory, after all, and who could forget the previous incarnations of Sharon? As commander of Unit 101, his 1953 escapades across the Jordanian border forced then U.S. Under-Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith to recommend a suspension of U.S. economic assistance to Israel until his actions were terminated and Israel's diversion of the River Jordan was resolved to President Eisenhower's satisfaction. Later examples include Sharon as defense minister, pounding his fist upon the desk of U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, attempting to have his way in Lebanon. And his settlement enterprise so irked George Bush Sr. during his presidency that he clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over the issue.
Sharon may take pride in his long and colorful history with numerous presidential administrations, but American suspicions of Sharon run deep, as does the belief that Israel's interests are ultimately at loggerheads with those of the U.S.. Israel has all too often proven itself a strategic liability for the US - most notably during the 1991 Gulf War - even while defining itself as a bastion of western-style democracy in the Middle East. The notion, then, of a warm, easy friendship between the current American president and Ariel Sharon is, for the most part, a myth perpetrated by the Israeli Prime Minister's Office.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration's suspicions of Arafat ensured that the PNA president was unwelcome in the White House. In this sense, Arafat remains Sharon's greatest ally. The release of the "Muqata Documents" in the wake of Operation Defensive Shield (April-May 2002) outraged the Bush administration by their implication that Arafat was a source of funding for various militant groups and their operations - this was a compelling reason for Bush's insistence that the PNA executive and its security forces clean up their act and disarm the Palestinian militias. Anger at Arafat even drove Bush into the arms of Sharon; if White House support for the Road Map was the high point of Bush's engagement in the conflict, the declaration of Sharon as a "man of peace" during Operation Defensive Shield was the low point for the president and his administration. This statement was the object of universal derision and confirmed many people's perceptions that the U.S. was irrevocably biased.
Nevertheless, the appointment of Elliott Abrams as the top White House adviser on the Middle East was perhaps the best example of Bush's real intentions toward the Sharon government in the lead-up to war in Iraq. His appointment mollified the American Jewish establishment and lessened the likelihood that the White House would be accused of anti-Israel sentiment. Who better to relay President Bush's dismay at Israeli government policy than a Jewish bureaucrat sympathetic to Israel, well connected to the government of Israel, and the Washington establishment?
Soon after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration released the Road Map. Its introduction disgusted the Sharon government and the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister increased pressure on Israel to comply with its provisions, causing real friction in the Bush-Sharon relationship. Sharon's refusal to bolster Abu Mazen by easing the humanitarian plight of the Palestinian people was accompanied by Israel's continued settlement construction, including the issue of new construction tenders and the publication in the Israeli press of figures detailing the growing number of new settlement outposts.
Above all, it was the construction of the separation barrier that hardened attitudes toward Sharon in the Bush administration. The U.S. is not opposed to the barrier in principle, but objects strongly to its exacerbation of the humanitarian and economic plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank, and the consequent obstruction of the political process. Three areas of actual and planned construction have been of particular concern: the proposed alignment around the Ariel settlement bloc, the section between Elkana and Ramallah overlooking Ben Gurion Airport; and the "Jerusalem Envelope." Construction around the Ariel bloc, which reaches deep into the West Bank, was halted after extensive negotiations between Rice and Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weissglass, finalized at a Washington summit on July 29, 2003, by Bush and Sharon themselves. As for the Ben Gurion area, American inspectors objected to the planned route after they were dispatched to the region to examine Israel's security concerns. The barrier around Jerusalem remains highly problematic, and in itself constitutes the most significant event in the area since the Israeli government's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem in June 1967. Eleven military orders requisitioning land for the barrier on Jerusalem's southeastern flank were issued soon after the Washington bilateral summit. These orders, and the start of construction, represent a clear and direct challenge to the Bush administration's position on the barrier.
For all its disapproval of the barrier's alignment, in order to appear as an "honest broker" between the Israeli government and the PNA, the administration did not pressure the Sharon government prior to a direct plea from the PNA. To obtain this, Rice telephoned then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Commenting that the Palestinians were "losing Jerusalem," she complained that the Bush administration was not hearing enough on the subject from the PNA. This spurred some reaction, though PNA protests against the barrier remained largely muted until the issue was transferred to the International Court of Justice. Irrespective of this, American pressure has been evident. One result of barrier construction has been a decrease in bilateral assistance to Israel at the end of 2003, while in January 2004 acting Israeli Attorney General Edna Arbel announced that three problematic areas of planned construction - strikingly similar to the abovementioned sections - required alternative plans. Weeks later, the Sharon government announced that by moving the barrier closer to the Green Line, its trajectory would be shortened.

An End to Opportunity?

The 2002 National Security Strategy, and its practical interpretation, the Road Map, clearly articulate the approach of the Bush administration toward the Palestine question. Placing significant responsibilities on both parties to the conflict, White House endorsement of the document's substance represents a significant engagement on the part of the administration that embodies considerable personal risk for Bush should events lead to total stagnation of the Road Map process. The Road Map and the nature of Sharon's relationship with the White House, moreover, have provided the Palestinian leadership with numerous opportunities to engage the Bush administration.
In writing of Palestinian opportunities to engage the administration, however, perhaps one should now utilize the past tense. Welcoming Sharon's announcement, in April 2004, of settlement evacuation from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, and in the framework of "unilateral disengagement," signaled apparent U.S. desperation in its efforts to move the peace process forward. The absence of effective and recognized Palestinian leadership meant there was no counterbalancing channel of communication to counter Bush as he undermined the Road Map's principle of bilateral negotiation on final borders and refugees and erased what a New York Times editorial labeled as "critical elements of the Palestinians' national narrative." This is the great tragedy of Palestinian leadership today; the absence of a leader who can provide an alternative to Ariel Sharon in the contest for influence in the corridors of power. The image of Sharon and Bush, standing side by side at the White House in April 2004, dismissive of the existing Palestinian leadership, attests to this.