Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just finished her seventh visit to Israel of 2008 to try to press the Israelis and Palestinians to reach some sort of agreement — one of the last major efforts of the Bush administration in its final months. But can the administration make any progress on this critical issue in the time it has left in office? Should it even try?
Last January a framework agreement between the two sides seemed possible with the help of a serious and apparently productive working relationship between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Now, however, the project appears doomed to failure. Olmert and Abbas have reportedly come closer than any Palestinian and Israeli leaders in history to some kind of framework agreement. But whatever points of agreement they have achieved remain secret. Widespread reports suggest that they are near agreement on provisional borders for the Palestinian state but have made little or no progress on the tougher issues of refugees and Jerusalem. What’s more, Olmert is set to resign, probably in October, when his successor as head of Kadima forms a government after this month’s party primary. Meanwhile, Abbas has repeatedly threatened to resign as the split between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza deepens.
One option left for the Bush administration is to craft a Bush-Olmert-Abbas statement detailing agreements reached to date. That would represent a critical achievement for a much-maligned administration if the progress were significant enough that the Palestinian and Israeli publics would regard it as encouraging. The possibility of an accord on provisional Palestinian borders, including Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank, cannot be ruled out. But it seems unlikely that the Palestinians would be willing to conclude an agreement with an outgoing, unpopular and compromised Israeli prime minister, because they would fear it might not be pursued by his successor. More important, the Palestinians have made it clear that they do not want to announce even a framework agreement in which outstanding issues such as Jerusalem and refugees are left out. Besides, there does not seem to be sufficient time left to complete enough details, even if the parties were prepared to do so.
The question then becomes whether a new Israeli prime minister, facing a tough election campaign in 2009 or 2010, would be prepared to risk negotiating a difficult and probably tenuous agreement in his or her first four months in office. He or she would then have to run on that accord, with his or her fate resting in the hands of the Palestinians. The last prime ministers who played that game — Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak — lost their jobs.
It is no wonder that most analysts give Bush and Rice almost no chance of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement of any substance before they leave office. They are likely correct. And yet, there is still a lot that the Bush administration can — and should — do to advance prospects for an eventual peace accord.
The transition between administrations is critically important. It is vital for a president to leave his successor a positive atmosphere for shaping the next administration’s early attitudes and approaches. The Madrid Conference of October 1991, designed by the first President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, and the bilateral and multilateral talks that followed gave the new Clinton administration’s Middle East team solid reason to believe that something could be accomplished in the peace process. Conversely, the failure of Clinton’s diplomacy in his last six months led the new Bush administration to avoid Arab-Israeli peace efforts like the plague. It has been widely reported that Clinton spent a good part of the drive with Bush from the White House to the inauguration urging the incoming president to be wary of Yasser Arafat.
The most important contribution Bush and Rice can make in their final months is to bequeath to their successors the sense that progress is possible in the Israeli-Palestinian arena if they quickly devote time, attention and political and diplomatic capital to it. In fact, it would be better for Bush and Rice to set the stage for future progress than to try to end their administration on a risky, and possibly tragic, note. A positive series of joint messages — either public or confidential — by the Palestinians and Israelis that communicated confidence in the future and invited the new president to continue and even accelerate his activities on their behalf would be critical in shaping the thinking of the transition team. Both sides could thank Bush and Rice, but urge further intensified steps.
The search for Middle East peace is long and arduous. We know from experience, however, that progress down that path can be hastened by successfully managing presidential transitions, so that a new administration can build on the work of its predecessor, rather than beginning again from square one.
Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science and director of the Center for Middle East Development at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum.