The Un-Decider

Pres­id­ent Bush meets with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ar­i­el Shar­on in the Oval Of­fice of the White House.
Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Im­ages
Dec. 11, 2014, 6:31 a.m.

How do peace pro­cesses fail? In his new book, In­de­cision Points: George W. Bush and the Is­raeli-Palestini­an Con­flict (Mas­sachu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy Press, Decem­ber 2014), Daniel E. Zough­bie uses the former pres­id­ent’s un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to end the vi­ol­ence in the re­gion as a case study. Zough­bie is a postdoc­tor­al fel­low at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley), but he does not write this ac­count from an ivory tower. Through in­ter­views with more than 40 Amer­ic­an and for­eign dig­nit­ar­ies and thought lead­ers—in­clud­ing former Sec­ret­ar­ies of State Colin Pow­ell and Con­doleezza Rice, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, former Palestini­an Prime Min­is­ter Salam Fayy­ad, and former U.N. Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Kofi An­nan—Zough­bie me­tic­u­lously maps the White House’s chan­ging ap­proaches to­ward Is­rael and the Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies, while ex­amin­ing the polit­ic­al cross­winds that buf­feted Pres­id­ent Bush. In the pro­cess, he finds a pat­tern of mis­takes that fu­ture ad­min­is­tra­tions would do well to avoid.

The fun­da­ment­al flaw in the Bush peace ini­ti­at­ives, Zough­bie ar­gues, was in­con­sist­ency. Over time, Bush went from a hands-off stance—which was a ma­jor change from the fe­ver­ish peace ef­forts of Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s second term—to what Zough­bie calls the “se­quence” ap­proach, which de­man­ded that Palestini­ans meet pre­con­di­tions be­fore Is­rael would be ex­pec­ted to con­cede any ground. Then the strategy shif­ted again, from se­quen­tial­ism to “par­al­lel­ism,” which re­quired con­cur­rent com­prom­ises from both sides. These va­cil­la­tions con­tin­ued un­til the end of Bush’s pres­id­ency.

At first, Bush put little fo­cus on the con­flict. But Rice tells the au­thor that Bush’s opin­ion of Yasir Ara­fat quickly soured in 2001, as the Palestini­an Lib­er­a­tion Or­gan­iz­a­tion chair­man be­haved more bel­li­ger­ently; that, she says, laid the ground­work for the pro-Is­rael policy that emerged after the 9/11 at­tacks changed the pres­id­ent’s world­view. (Bush gives his own ac­count of the pro­cess in his auto­bi­o­graphy, De­cision Points, the title of which ap­par­ently in­spired Zough­bie’s.) Along with Ir­aq, Is­rael and the Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies would be­come part of the “free­dom agenda,” de­signed to bring peace to the wider Middle East through a demo­crat­ic dom­ino ef­fect. Bush would now pur­sue a se­quen­tial ap­proach: In a Rose Garden speech in June 2002, the pres­id­ent de­man­ded that Ara­fat resign, and that the Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies hold elec­tions; un­til that happened, he de­clared, Is­rael should con­cede noth­ing.

Zough­bie ar­gues that this de­clar­a­tion doomed Bush’s ef­forts when he later ad­voc­ated par­al­lel re­con­cili­ation between Is­raeli and Palestini­an lead­ers. The much-touted “Road Map for Peace,” fi­nal­ized in April 2003, called on all in­volved parties—in­clud­ing the United States, Rus­sia, and oth­er peace brokers—to make cer­tain con­ces­sions sim­ul­tan­eously over the fol­low­ing few years. Palestini­ans would curb ter­ror­ism, and Is­rael­is would dis­mantle set­tle­ments in the West Bank. But Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ters Ar­i­el Shar­on and Ehud Olmert pushed back, con­stantly cit­ing Bush’s 2002 speech as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for delay­ing the Road Map’s im­ple­ment­a­tion; the Palestini­ans, they in­sisted, had to first do what Bush had said they must. Amer­ica lost its cred­ib­il­ity as a mod­er­at­or.

Zough­bie char­ac­ter­izes Bush’s second-term peace ef­forts as a series of mis­cal­cu­la­tions and missed op­por­tun­it­ies. The pres­id­ent, he writes, “con­tin­ued to va­cil­late back and forth between the Rose Garden vis­ion of se­quence and the Road Map’s vis­ion of par­al­lel­ism.” Be­cause Bush “con­fused” the two ap­proaches, Zough­bie says, and “failed to come down on one side or the oth­er, the situ­ation was left in ut­ter dis­ar­ray.”

Even without the stra­tegic con­fu­sion, however, Bush’s bids for peace faced con­sid­er­able obstacles. Ara­fat and Shar­on shared an un­dy­ing mu­tu­al dis­trust. Mean­while, at home, con­ser­vat­ives were deeply di­vided. There were real­ists like Pow­ell; neo­con­ser­vat­ives like Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney and De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld; and “theo­con­ser­vat­ives” who de­man­ded com­plete Is­raeli own­er­ship of the land in or­der to ful­fill bib­lic­al proph­ecy. Con­gress, for its part, was pres­sur­ing Bush to take more con­ser­vat­ive, or pro-Is­rael, po­s­i­tions.

Bush’s de­fend­ers can, and will, as­sert that peace was out of reach un­til the po­lar­iz­ing Ara­fat and Shar­on left the stage. Whatever the truth of that, this study of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s eight years of fu­til­ity demon­strates how shifts in Amer­ic­an strategy can de­rail any chance of pro­gress in the Middle East. Pres­id­ent Obama’s suc­cessor will, ac­cord­ingly, have to take the cur­rent policy (which is akin to par­al­lel­ism) in­to ac­count as he or she de­cides on a stra­tegic ap­proach to a con­flict that of­ten seems un­resolv­able.

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