In the final year of his presidency, Bill Clinton set his sights on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the equivalent of setting out to develop a cure for cancer in the thirty seconds you get to answer “Final Jeopardy.” But Clinton invested countless hours and untold energy in coaxing a peace deal out of the two sides. He cajoled, pleaded, and sweet-talked Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He made a peace agreement the central focus of his foreign policy, investing the immense prestige of his office in the enterprise.
All his efforts, however, blew up in the massive explosion of violence of the Intifada. It was failure on a grand scale. Shortly before the end of his presidency, with his entire “legacy” lying in ruins, Clinton spoke to Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat on the phone. When Arafat called Clinton a “great man,” the dejected outgoing president retorted, “The hell I am. I am a colossal failure and you made me one.” Which was a bit unfair to Arafat, given Clinton’s propensity for scandal.
Apparently, President Bush has taken a look at Clinton’s disastrous peacemaking policy and decided, “That was a good idea. Let’s give that one another try.”
It’s unclear what exactly motivates U.S. presidents to end their tenures by chasing the great white whale of a Mideast peace deal. Clinton probably was angling for a Nobel peace prize in hopes of erasing the stain of impeachment, while Bush seems to expect that midwifing a peace agreement will help cement a coalition of Middle Eastern states allied against Iran.
But Bush’s repeat performance in the Israeli-Palestinian arena has yielded the same dismal outcome as Clinton’s efforts, only in a much shorter time span.
Several months ago, the Bush Administration launched a new demarche in the Middle East, effectively discarding the “road map” that had called for both sides to undertake specific measures before they advanced to new stages of peacemaking. The problem was that the road map’s first stage called for the Palestinians to crack down on anti-Israeli terrorism. With Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s total destruction, now in control of the Gaza Strip, the merry peace bus envisioned in the road map had become a broken-down jalopy stalled in the first stage.
So last week, President Bush went to Israel to encourage Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to skip over those annoying little prerequisites — like ending Palestinian terrorism — and begin final status negotiations on issues such as dividing Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. Olmert immediately complied, announcing the beginning of final status negotiations with the Palestinians.
Of course, the new policy was predicated on Olmert remaining in power long enough to carry it out. And Bush clearly expected that he would be. According to Haaretz, “U.S. President George Bush left Israel last Friday convinced that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition was stable enough to advance the peace process, a senior Western diplomat said Tuesday.”
That was Tuesday — as in yesterday. Today, Avigdor Lieberman announced he will pull his rightwing Israel Beiteinu party out of Olmert’s government to protest the beginning of final status negotiations. The party’s departure will surely provoke the exit of the other rightwing party, Shas, from the coalition, thus costing the government its majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The paralyzed government, possibly with the addition of the far-left Meretz party, will then limp along for a brief period as rightwing MKs submit a series of no-confidence motions until one of them passes and brings down the government. Opinion polls show that the rightwing Likud party will win the next election, most likely running on a platform explicitly rejecting concessions on Jerusalem or the commencement of any other final status negotiations.
If this scenario sounds familiar, thatit’s because it happened in 2000, when rightwing parties withdrew from former prime minister Ehud Barak’s coalition after he proposed dramatic concessions to the Palestinians, including the division of Jerusalem. Barak’s government collapsed, leading to the election of the Likud under the hawkish leadership of Ariel Sharon.
It’s rare that a major U.S. foreign policy overture fails so spectacularly in such a short period of time. It’s hard to conceive that Bush could not foresee this turn of events, since Lieberman has emphatically declared since he joined the government over a year ago that he would go into opposition if the government began negotiations over Jerusalem’s division. If Bush was hoping for some flexibility, perhaps the leader of an ideological Zionist party to the right of the Likud was not the best place to look for it.
Bush visited Israel in hopes of strengthening Olmert’s government to carry out Bush’s new peace policy. But instead, Bush has single-handedly sparked the beginning of the downfall of the government in which he invested his credibility. One would be hard pressed to recall a more counterproductive diplomatic mission in recent American history.
We can only wonder how America’s top diplomatic minds could have advised Bush to undertake such a futile enterprise, especially in light of the depressing results of Clinton’s previous gambit in this area. “I’m a colossal failure,” Clinton admitted after his Mideast peacemaking efforts backfired. Now Bush knows how he felt.