In his last year in office, President Bush has finally gotten engaged in the Middle East peace process. Last week he made his first visit as president to Israel and the West Bank, only weeks after convening a high-profile peace summit in Annapolis this past November.
Bush started the stopwatch to count down his remaining year in office by committing his administration to the seemingly impossible task of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Meeting this deadline, itself the most tangible outcome of the Annapolis summit to date, will now require a Herculean effort from Washington. Much like his predecessors — Ronald Reagan presented the Schultz plan in 1988, the elder George Bush convened the Madrid peace conference in 1991, and Bill Clinton hosted the Camp David talks in 2000 — Bush waited until the last year of his presidency to delve into the muddy waters of Middle East peace-making. But while this countdown is important, there is a second stopwatch ticking in parallel that makes the need to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of 2008 all the more urgent: In January 2009, the term of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will also come to an end.
The Palestinian leader has repeatedly made clear since his election in 2005 that he has no intention of seeking a second term. This fact should be of great concern. While some argue that losing Bush might not exactly spell disaster for the peace process, the loss of Abbas — absent a peace agreement — almost certainly will.
Like no other Palestinian leader, Abbas has been committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel and a negotiated, nonviolent end of the Israeli occupation. Reaching back to the 1980s, he was the first and most important proponent of negotiating with Israel. He was a key protagonist during the Oslo years, and in 1995 presented the first-ever draft of an Israeli-Palestinian final status accord with Yossi Beilin.
Abbas also spearheaded attempts to reform the Palestinian Authority as its first prime minister, but was pushed out of office by the self-serving Yasser Arafat. Still, when Arafat passed away, it was Abbas who inherited the mantle of the unifying Palestinian leader. There are simply no alternatives to him.
Even if Abbas was convinced to run again, in the absence of a true peace process or signaled agreement, he would most likely lose. Worse still, as of now it is entirely unclear who might succeed him.
Within the moderate camp, the current prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is a favorite of the West, a brilliant technocrat and economist. Fayyad is a reformer and secularist committed to peace and normalization. However, he lacks a popular platform and, as a former World Bank official, never gained the street credibility of the old and new Fatah guards — let alone of Hamas.
Muhammad Dahlan was once thought of as a possible alternative, a strongman well liked by Israel and the United States, tough but clever and equipped with the requisite street credibility. The Hamas coup in Gaza in June, however, has been interpreted by many as a reaction to Dahlan’s failed policies. His candidacy would not only deepen the divide between Fatah and Hamas, but would also raise concerns among the many Palestinians favoring reform and accountability.
Elder stateswoman Hanan Ashrawi, much like Fayyad, has limited popular standing, as do other reform- and peace-minded strategists and advisers close to Abbas. The sole candidate who combines street credibility and popular appeal with a demonstrated commitment to negotiations and coexistence is the imprisoned former Fatah leader in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, a key figure during the Palestinian uprising in 2000 and 2001. However, an orchestrated release from jail in Israel may well undercut his credibility and thus prevent his candidacy, even if it takes place in conjunction with the liberation of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Therefore, the strongest contender may well turn out to be one that nobody in Israel or the United States will look forward to: a Hamas nominee. Whether Ismail Haniyeh, the relatively moderate, erstwhile elected prime minister, or the much more hardline former foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas president would certainly not be acceptable as a negotiating partner for Israel or the United States.
A radicalized Palestinian entity on both sides of Israel would be a failed state before it could achieve statehood. Achieving a peace agreement by the end of 2008, therefore, is a deadline dictated by far more than Bush’s interest in establishing his legacy in the Middle East. It is also a profound necessity for all those wishing to avoid a further disastrous deterioration in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, a development that would undoubtedly contribute to a further destabilization of the entire region.
The member states of the international diplomatic quartet, the American Jewish community, policy shops, think tanks, non-government organizations, political action committees, peace operatives in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the so-called Arab quartet, donors, presidential candidates, Congress — they all must give unwavering support to the peace push by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in order to apply the necessary pressure to bring about an agreement.
There are few elements of a future peace deal that remain genuinely unclear; the outline of the endgame is well known. What is needed now is commitment, dedication and political will to achieve an agreement before the time runs out in January 2009 — because if it does, the clock may well have stopped for good.
Markus Bouillon, former director of the International Peace Academy’s Middle East Program, is the author of “The Peace Business: Money and Power in the Palestine-Israel Conflict” (I.B. Tauris, 2004) and “Iraq: Preventing A New Generation Of Conflict” (Lynne Rienner). Michael Shtender-Auerbach, former associate director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative, is the founder and managing director of Social Risks LLC, a social, environmental and political risk consultancy.