The Magazine

The Path of Realism or the Path of Failure

Laying a foundation for peace in Palestine.

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Repetition of failed experiments is not a sign of mental health or a path to scientific progress, nor is it a formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Yet that is the road we may again take, unless the lessons of the Bush years are learned.

As an official of the Bush administration I made three dozen visits to the Middle East in the last eight years, and in February, as Israelis voted, I made my first visit as a private citizen in nearly a decade. After lengthy discussions with Israelis and Palestinians, it seems to me obvious that it is time to face certain facts, facts that President Bush actually saw clearly during his first term: We are not on the verge of Israeli-Palestinian peace; a Palestinian state cannot come into being in the near future; and the focus should be on building the institutions that will allow for real Palestinian progress in the medium or longer term.

In a historic speech on June 24, 2002, President Bush said, "My vision is two states, living side by side, in peace and security." How were we to get there? He was specific:

There is simply no way to achieve that peace until all parties fight terror. Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty.

If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. If the Palestinian people meet these goals, they will be able to reach agreement with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence. And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state, whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East. .  .  . A Palestinian state will never be created by terror. It will be built through reform. And reform must be more than cosmetic change or a veiled attempt to preserve the status quo. True reform will require entirely new political and economic institutions based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism.

This was the announcement that the United States was breaking totally with Yasser Arafat--the single most frequent foreign visitor to the Clinton White House--and would henceforth consider him a terrorist rather than a negotiating partner. Six months later the "Roadmap," a plan for progress toward these goals, was drafted. Even its formal name, "A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," suggested its conformity to President Bush's speech. Its preamble stated in part, "A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will only be achieved through an end to violence and terrorism, when the Palestinian people have a leadership acting decisively against terror and willing and able to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty."

The Roadmap did not call for leaping directly from the status quo--the Palestinian Authority, or PA, established after Oslo--to statehood. Instead it called for an interim phase "focused on the option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty, based on the new constitution, as a way station to a permanent status settlement." The text here reiterated the need for Palestinian leaders "acting decisively against terror, willing and able to build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty."

After Arafat's death in November 2004, his lieutenant Mahmoud Abbas became president of the PA, and efforts to achieve some of these required reforms began. But there began as well a distancing by the United States and the international "Quartet" that had sponsored the Roadmap (the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia) from the tough and clear standards that had been set out. It is as if those standards were meant to record disgust with Arafat, but with his passing the familiar insistence on rapid progress--and more Israeli concessions--returned.