Quandt: Bush May Open Door for Mideast Peace in Next Administration

William B. Quandt, a leading historian on U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, says the best chance for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is if the talks continue through the year, and the next U.S. president decides to move in energetically to try to bring about closure.

January 16, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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William B. Quandt, a leading historian on U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, says the best chance for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is if the talks continue through the year, and the next U.S. president decides to move in energetically to try to bring about closure. Based on his analysis of past peace processes, he says that past agreements have always needed strong U.S. leadership, as well as strong Arab and Israeli leaders.

How does President Bush’s efforts compare to the efforts of other U.S. presidents? Of course, the final results are to still be determined.

Bush’s approach to the Arab-Israeli situation represents a break with his predecessors, but it is a break that stemmed very directly from the failure of the Clinton initiatives. That is, as Bush was coming into office, his gift from Bill Clinton was that Clinton had tried really, really hard and had failed to achieve a major breakthrough. He told Bush in no uncertain terms that “I failed because of Yasir Arafat [head of the Palestine Liberation Organization].”

Bush thus had very little incentive at the outset to pick up a failing project and embrace it and make it his own—and he didn’t. His very first reaction to this issue was to say, “I’m not going to take this on.” Clinton had proved that by trying too hard you can actually make things worse. When Bush’s secretary of state [Colin Powell] urged him not to turn his back on Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy, he said something to the effect that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. That attitude was colored by the preceding failure but also reflected a deep suspicion on his part that this was not something that he wanted to take on. Of course, 9/11 occurs and totally shifts his focus toward war and terrorism, and eventually Iraq.

It almost becomes a theme of Bush’s policy that the war on terrorism and Iraq had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli issue. If the Palestinian issue deserves attention, it deserves attention in its own right, but it’s not related to the war on terrorism. Terrorists didn’t attack us because of our policies on this and we’re not going to try to change things in the Middle East as part of the war on terrorism by pressuring our friends, the Israelis, to make concessions to the Palestinians. This de-linking of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and other issues in the Middle East has been made by others but no president previously stated it so bluntly.

Was it a mistake do you think?

I think so. And I don’t think he was able to stick with it, because every time he needed help from one or another Arab party in the so-called war on terrorism, he would have to make promises of “Well, we’ll do something on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.” So, he would give them verbal bouquets, like his support for a Palestinian state, which comes at a time when he is trying to globalize support against Iraq. This makes Arabs skeptical. They say, “We can’t cooperate with you on the Iraq issue unless you’re giving us something on the Palestinian issue.” He then gives them some verbal gestures. There’s a period that goes on for quite a long time when the rhetoric of the Bush administration is fairly forward-leaning—that the Palestinian state should be contiguous, it should be democratic—but there’s no strategy to make it happen. People see through it very quickly on the Arab side. They say, “It’s nice to get the words, but what are you doing about it?”

Was Bush one of the first to actually call for a Palestinian state?

No, not really. Clinton is the one who put the specific proposal on the table that includes a Palestinian state. He didn’t go around talking about it loudly beforehand, but when you look at the final Clinton proposal in December 2000 and January 2001, it is a two-state solution that he is talking about. In fact, it is not very far from what Bush has been talking about on his most recent trip. If there is an author of the concept, it’s President Jimmy Carter talking about a Palestinian “homeland,” and then it’s Reagan/Bush recognizing the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] as spokesman for the Palestinian people instead of Jordan.

So when did the Bush plan for negotiations start?

It’s taken us a very, very long time to get to the point where you’ve got the embryo of a commitment to negotiations. But the problem now is that our clock is running out. Bush may think that he’s president with full authority until a year from now, but in the region people are already beginning to discount what he says as not as nearly as important as what may be on the mind of whoever is going to be the next president. There is no way of getting around that.

Of course, the underlying problem is that [Israeli] Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has a very low political standing and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas can only really talk for the West Bank. I don’t know how a deal could be worked out.

I went back and looked at all the previous American negotiations in the Arab-Israeli arena from 1967 to the present. There’s been no lack of initiative. There’s been at least one major effort a year on average. I then broke it down on which produced agreements and of those agreements, which ones have been implemented. It’s a very interesting coincidence. Deals are achieved when you have a strong Arab leader dealing with a strong Israeli leader, with strong American mediation. That’s the only basis on which you’ve gotten deals that have been not only agreed upon but implemented.

So where does this leave the current President Bush?

You almost have to imagine getting back to a situation where American leadership would be much more sustained and substantial than Bush has offered or is offering. He very specifically told the Israelis on this trip that it’s up to them and he’s not going to dictate to them, which is fine to say but it gives a signal that this is really not his top priority. If it were our top priority, if we were doing this for our own national interest, then you would have to expect that he would push really hard on this because it matters to us. He said just the opposite. He said, “This matters to you and we will support you if you want to take risks, but if you don’t want to do it I’m not going to waste my time on it.”

Olmert talks as if he’s quite willing to do something but do you think he has any real possibility of doing anything?

Olmert is kind of intriguing because he’s clearly changed his position. He’s said things since Annapolis [in November 2007] that would almost make you think he’s trying to get Israeli public opinion ready for some fairly major changes. He said “If we miss this chance, it’s the end of Israel, as a Jewish state.” That’s a pretty strong statement. Some people thought it was excessively so. Then, to my astonishment, he said “If we go along with the current path without a peace agreement, the rest of the world is going to see us as an apartheid state.” A lot of eyebrows were raised in Israel precisely for that. Those are fairly strong statements in the Israeli context. He’s saying “We’ve got to start thinking long and hard about how we end the conflict with the Palestinians, end the occupation, and significantly pull back to the 1967-modified borders.” I give him credit for taking on the concept, which he formerly couldn’t, that giving up most of the West Bank is the price Israel has to pay to remain a Jewish state.

Our clock is running out. Bush may think that he’s president with full authority until a year from now, but in the region people are already beginning to discount what he says as not as nearly as important as what may be on the mind of whoever is going to be the next president.

What he hasn’t yet been willing to do is say where Jerusalem fits in that. He just lost [Yisrael Beiteinu], a coalition partner today, which has only eleven votes in the Knesset [Israeli parliament]. But Shas, another coalition partner, says if he even mentions Jerusalem, they are going to leave. At that point his cabinet no longer has a majority. He has sixty-seven votes in the Knesset now, but that’s premised on him not tackling the Jerusalem issue. I interpret Bush’s going to the region and saying what he did in Israel as an attempt to bolster Olmert. He likes the guy and he has not hesitated to intervene in other countries’ politics when he thinks it will serve our interests. He basically told the Israelis that this is the best prime minister you’re going to have, which is his way of saying if you get rid of him, don’t count on me.

What about Abbas’ situation? That’s a lot tougher right?

Yes, he has even less support. At least Olmert has the legitimacy of being elected in a democratic process. If he makes a decision, we know how it will have to go. They will debate it, have an up or down vote in the Knesset and he’ll probably win it, if it’s a reasonable proposal. The problem is you have no institutions on the Palestinian side, a very questionable legitimacy, and there’s a somewhat chaotically organized upper echelon of the political arena. It’s very hard to get clear-cut, disciplined negotiations. It’s very hard to know what you would do with an agreement if you got it. You could conceivably have a referendum to legitimize it, except what do you do with Gaza where you’ve got a million and a half angry Palestinians who would be against it most likely. Yes, it’s very difficult on that side. That’s one of the problems in expecting that this can be completed in the coming year. There will probably have to be some kind of political deal on the Palestinian side that gets back to some kind of a national unity government and loses the incentive that Hamas now has to sabotage.

Do you think the next president of the United States would be able to pick up where this leaves off?

That would be the best scenario. The human side of this is actually pretty good right now. When Abbas and Olmert meet they say good things about each other. You’ve got a core on both the Palestinian and Israeli side that are beginning to talk seriously; I don’t think they are ready to reach agreements. If you could just keep that going for the next eleven, twelve months, whatever it’s going to be, so that when the new administration comes in they would see there is something there. You’ve got a limited amount of areas of disagreement and you have an ongoing dialogue. The challenge will be, is it time to go for broke with a new president? Would you want to try to bring the Syrians in at that point? Is there some merit in diffusing their incentives to sabotage it? Would it make it easier? There’s an interesting argument always among peace processes about whether you want to do one track at a time or whether you get some synergies out of talking to Syrians, talking to Palestinians, back and forth and so forth. Those would be strategic choices a new president would need to make.