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.
More and more speeches, including American speeches, called for rapid agreement on a Palestinian state, for a final status agreement, for elimination altogether of that interim phase. Worse yet, at the Annapolis Conference, announced in July 2007 and convened that November, the president announced that the goal was a final status agreement by the end of 2008. This left only 13 months, which was itself astonishing for a problem as old and complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed to ignore the June 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza, and, as the end of 2008 coincided with the end of the president's own term, it seemed to substitute the American political calendar for a realistic assessment of facts on the ground, just as the Clinton administration had done.
And it failed. Those of us within the Bush administration who had protested the Annapolis plan and the announcement of the 2008 goal were sadly proved right. Historians may puzzle over the causes of the failure, and perhaps more so over what led the president to turn away from the tough-minded realism toward this conflict that he showed during his first term. But the lesson for 2009, for the new administration, must be that there are actually only two alternatives: realism and failure.
Judging by the standards set forth in President Bush's still remarkable 2002 speech, the PA has made some genuine progress. Under U.S. tutelage, training of Palestinian security forces has begun largely under the radar, at a training center in Jordan. But it is working: Sixteen hundred police from the West Bank have gone through the course, and there are plans to double that number. The newly trained forces are not exactly crack troops, but they are a far cry from the divided and ineffective gangs created by Yasser Arafat. Their success was visible during the recent Gaza war, when they acted in parallel, and sometimes in concert, with Israeli forces to prevent Hamas violence and terrorism in the West Bank. Order was maintained.
Much of the credit goes to PA prime minister Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist whose integrity, candor, and effective administration of the PA have made him a favorite of the United States and all other donors. Fayyad, a former finance minister (who brought order from chaos in the PA's finances and continues to fight PA corruption), has presided over continuing economic growth in the West Bank and maintains a working if unfriendly relationship with Israeli officials. Fayyad is well aware of the history of his sometime partner, sometime foe in Jerusalem, the government of Israel, and indeed of the history of the entire Zionist enterprise: Institutions were built over long decades to prepare for Israel's independence despite the uncertainty of when it would arrive. The Zionists struggled to be ready, hoping thereby also to bring the day closer. That is Fayyad's task for the Palestinian people, as he appears to see it.
He gets remarkably little help, from either Arab states or the West. The willingness of oil-rich Arab leaders to supply Palestinians with endless amounts of rhetoric and precious little cash is not new, though the high oil prices of recent years made it all the more obscene. But Fayyad has also had less help from the West than one might expect. The shift away from realistic efforts to build Palestinian institutions and toward international conferences like Annapolis put President Abbas in the limelight, not the pragmatic work of Fayyad and his ministers. So Abbas traveled from capital to capital, as he continues to do, safely removed from the difficult work of building the basis for an independent Palestine. If the West Bank had a factory with a thousand jobs for every such trip, for every photo op with a smiling foreign leader, and for every international conference, the Palestinians there would be thriving.
What are the chances that such meetings will produce a final status agreement in 2009? None. Despite the pressures for progress after Annapolis, little progress was made in 2008, and if anything conditions are worse now. In 2008, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were frequent at two levels: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with President Abbas, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with Palestinian chief negotiators Ahmed Qurei ("Abu Ala") and Saeb Erekat. I am unaware of the achievement of any actual agreement on any important issue on either track.
On the toughest issues, such as Jerusalem and refugees, there was, unsurprisingly, no meeting of the minds. It is unlikely negotiators will do better this year. It has been true for decades that the most Israel can offer the Palestinians is quite evidently less than any Palestinian politician is prepared to accept. Those who say "the outlines of an agreement are well known" and thereby suggest that an agreement is close are precisely wrong: Is it not evident that to the extent that such outlines are "well known," they are unacceptable to both sides or they would have led to a deal long ago? In addition, any possible deal would take years to implement: Israel would need that time to remove settlers from lands that would become part of Palestine, while the Palestinians would need to win the fight against terrorism. So any deal would be a so-called shelf agreement, where Palestinian leaders would be compromising on Jerusalem, borders, and refugee claims in exchange not for a state, but for an Israeli promise of a state at some indeterminate future date. No Palestinian leader jumped at that in 2007 or 2008, and none will in 2009.
Meanwhile, whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the PA as an institution, Fatah as a party is moribund. Its reputation for incompetence and corruption remains what it was when Arafat was alive, for there has been no party reform despite endless promises. At one point in 2008, when Ahmed Qurei--one of Arafat's closest cronies, famed for permitting corruption, renowned for opposing the rise of any newer and younger leaders in Fatah--was formally charged with organizing and implementing party reform, tragedy gave way to farce. But if democracy is impossible without democratic parties, the collapse of Fatah is no joke; it suggests that a future independent Palestine would either be run by Hamas and other extremists and terrorists or become a one-party "republic" on the model of Tunisia or Egypt.
There is more. Prime Minister Olmert, who was intent on trying for an agreement by the end of President Bush's term, will be gone, and his successor will not be as enthusiastic to make the concessions Olmert reportedly offered the Palestinians. President Obama has not committed himself to achieve an agreement in 2009 in the way that President Bush did in 2007 and 2008. The Palestinian political leadership under President Abbas and his Fatah party is weak, even increasingly illegitimate as the presidential election date prescribed in the Palestinian law was ignored and Abbas's term in office extended. And, of course, it is impossible to see how a comprehensive final status agreement between Israel and the PA can be reached when the PA itself has now lost control of 40 percent of the Palestinian population, the 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza.
First, there is the question of who can actually negotiate with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is still recognized by the Arab League and the United Nations as the "sole legitimate voice of the Palestinian people" though it never won a free election to attain that status. Israel's past negotiations, in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and ever since, have all been with the PLO--not formally with the PA, which was created at Oslo to exercise certain governmental functions in the Palestinian territories. When Israel negotiates with Abbas, it is in his capacity as chairman of the PLO, not in his role as president of the PA. But now the PA governs only one part of Palestinian territory. Hamas governs the other part--and Hamas is not a member of the PLO. In the 2006 elections 44 percent of Palestinians voted for Hamas, moreover, and it maintains a majority in the Palestinian parliament (a possible problem should that body ever meet). So, for which Palestinians do Abbas, the PA, and the PLO actually speak? While Israel rightly refuses to negotiate with a terrorist group like Hamas, or with the PA or PLO should it include Hamas in its ranks, it remains true that the PA and PLO no longer have a strong claim to represent all Palestinians and may now lack the ability to enforce any deal with Israel they sign.
Second, the lesson of Gaza to Israelis is identical to the lesson of south Lebanon, and a cautionary tale regarding withdrawal from the West Bank: "Land for peace" concessions have failed and become "land for terrorism." Until there is far better security in the West Bank, few Israelis would risk withdrawing the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet from operating there.
And third, the terrorist groups Israel is dealing with, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, used to be local; now those groups have the full backing of Iran, both directly and through Syria and Hezbollah. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now part of a broader struggle in the region over Iranian extremism and power. Israeli withdrawals now risk opening the door not only to Palestinian terrorists but to Iranian proxies. How could Israelis, or Palestinians for that matter, take such a risk--especially when the new American administration has not defined its policy toward Iran, except for some vague and (to Arabs and Israelis alike) worrying phrases about outreached hands and sitting across negotiating tables, and the U.S. military option is invisible?
Taken together, these factors suggest that a final status agreement is not now a real-world goal. What is? A return to the realistic assessments and policies that marked Bush's first term. In practice, this suggests an intense concentration on building Palestinian institutions in the West Bank.
There is much to build on, with security force improvements well under way, the economy in decent shape, and a reliable and trustworthy leader in Prime Minister Fayyad. Neither the United States nor Israel has done nearly as much as it can to promote progress on the ground, allowing Palestinians in the West Bank freer movement and helping create more jobs and a better standard of living. After the Gaza war, Israel appears prepared to do more, and should be asked to do so; Israel has a strategic interest in the success of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and of moderate forces in Palestinian society more generally. Arab states should be pressured intensely to provide the funds needed to meet the PA payroll and undertake sensible investment projects, for example in housing and agriculture. The United States and the Quartet should take some time away from endless meetings and speeches and resolutions calling for immediate negotiations over final status issues, and turn instead to making real life in the West Bank better and more secure. If there is ever to be a Palestinian state, it will be the product of such activities, not of formulaic pronouncements about the need for Palestinian statehood now.
It is also time to rethink the recent commitment to leaping all at once to full independence for the Palestinians, and even to break the taboo and rethink that ultimate goal itself. Immediate and total independence was not the plan when the Roadmap was written in 2002 and released in 2003. Then, it was understood that "an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty" was a necessary way-station. Given Hamas control over Gaza, which makes a united independent Palestine impossible for now anyway, a West Bank-only state with provisional borders and only some of the attributes of sovereignty makes far more sense as a medium-term goal. It might also allow postponing compromises on Jerusalem and refugee claims that no Palestinian politician could now make, for those issues could be left aside for another day, while the delays are blamed on Hamas and its rebellion in Gaza.
How that episode will end is entirely unclear, given Israel's reluctance to reoccupy and rule Gaza, and Egypt's reluctance to enforce strict controls on the smuggling of weapons. One Israeli official told me that Egypt had agreed to stop the smuggling through the tunnels. But will they really do it? I asked him. Oh, he replied, "now you are asking if we can get an agreement to implement the agreement. That's different." While Iran is able to sustain the Hamas terrorist regime in Gaza, negotiations over a full final status agreement are little more than staking territorial claims to a mirage.
But one is free to wonder as well whether Palestinian "statehood" is the best and most sensible goal for Palestinians. When I served under Secretary of State George Shultz in the Reagan administration, we were expressly opposed to that outcome and favored some links to Egypt and Jordan. On security and economic grounds, such links are no less reasonable now; indeed, given Hamas control of Gaza and the Iranian threat to moderate Arab states as well as to Israel, they may be even more compelling. As we've seen, President Bush in 2002 stated that the Palestinians should "reach agreement with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence."
Now, even the mention of Egyptian and Jordanian involvement will evoke loud protests, not least in Amman and Ramallah, and perhaps U.S. policymakers should think but not speak about such an outcome. There are many and varied possible relationships between a Palestinian entity in the West Bank and the Hashemite monarchy, and if none can be embraced today, none should be discarded either. One Arab statesman told me when I asked him about a Jordanian role that there "must absolutely be an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank--if only for 15 minutes," and then they could decide on some form of federation or at least a Jordanian security role for the area. If the greatest Israeli, Jordanian, and Egyptian fears are of terrorism, disorder, and Iranian inroads in a Palestinian West Bank state, a Jordanian role is a practical means of addressing those fears.
Israel's next government, which Israel's president has asked Benjamin Netanyahu to form, must soon take up these matters with the Palestinians, Arab neighbors, the EU, and above all with the United States. The new Obama administration has not yet worked out a policy toward Iran or toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but that may be a hopeful sign. Thinking is better than assuming or reacting or misjudging. As the new team reviews the playing field, it would be well advised to look not only at what its predecessors did in the second Bush term, but also at what they did in the first term--when a gritty realism prevailed over visions, dreams, and endless conferences. For, again, it seems to me there are at present only two paths forward--the path of realism and the path of failure.
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration.