Bush 41 for Middle East Envoy

George Bush can save the Middle East. Bush 41, that is.


President Bush, your country needs you. You are better situated than anyone else alive to pull Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects out of the ditch. Granted, success is a long shot, but you can shorten the odds if anyone can. Ask your son to make you his special envoy to the Middle East.

George H.W. Bush is 80 years old, happily retired, and presumably disinclined to wade into the world's most intractable conflict. But perhaps he could be tempted. After being mired for several years in a hopeless stalemate, the Middle East suddenly presents an opportunity for progress.

The (current) Bush administration has taken much guff for its disengagement from peace efforts in the Middle East. George W. Bush is charged with obtusely coddling Ariel Sharon, Israel's hard-line prime minister. In reality, the charge is overblown. Bush 43 is the first president to make the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (a prospect that Sharon has long loathed) an explicit goal of U.S. policy. But such a state must be democratic and peaceful, or it will be a threat to Israel, the region, and itself.

As long as the wretched Yasir Arafat remained in power, there was no path from here to there. Israel had no partner for peace negotiations and was digging in for a long siege. America had no credible champion of Palestinian democracy. Alternative Palestinian leaders were blocked from power. The only winners were Hamas, radical Israeli settlers and other rejectionist factions. There was no peace process and none in prospect until the facts changed.

Change has now come. Arafat is gone at just the moment of Bush's re-election. Egypt and other moderate Arab countries are engaged diplomatically and eager to defuse the conflict, which destabilizes their own regimes. Sharon, architect of the settlement movement, is gambling his political career on the removal of settlements in Gaza. "Waiting in the wings," says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "is a [Palestinian] leadership that for its own reasons believes the intifada of the last four years was a terrible mistake. So it's a remarkable moment. The stars are aligned in a way we haven't seen in a long time."

Arafat leaves behind political turmoil and organizational shambles. For the time being, Palestinian moderates of Arafat's generation are in charge, but they possess little or no popular legitimacy. Elections for president of the Palestinian Authority, set for January 9, may bring the moderates a measure of legitimacy, but their position will remain weak. Palestinian militants retain firepower, fight and considerable support in the streets.

Under the circumstances, any attempt to rush straight to the endgame could be catastrophic. Unprepared as they were for a grand final settlement in the disastrous Camp David negotiations of 2000, the parties are far less ready today. "We should have limited expectations about moving too fast toward a resolution," Makovsky says. "It would be better to do this steadily but surely, and it will require a lot of U.S. involvement even to get intermediate steps. No one should underestimate the role that's needed, and the U.S. is uniquely positioned to orchestrate this effort."

The incremental strategy is embodied in the "road map"—a staged plan to abate the conflict, establish a provisional Palestinian state, and only then grapple with final-settlement issues. Even the initial steps require the leaders on both sides to take extraordinary risks, risks that propel their publics into the unknown.

Israelis must be persuaded to freeze their settlement program (over furious domestic opposition, as Sharon is discovering), rebuild Palestinian security forces (which last time turned their guns on Israel), and create a provisional Palestinian state (potentially a major new security threat)—all in exchange for promises that the outgunned and unpopular Palestinian Authority will do a better job than Israel's army of disarming and defeating Palestinian militants.

As for Palestinians, they must be persuaded to go to the brink of civil war, or quite possibly over the brink, to do what many Palestinians regard as Israel's dirty work of suppressing militants. If a Palestinian civil war ignited, it is not at all certain that moderates could win. Some militants can be co-opted into politics if they see a real state in prospect, but others will fight to the bitter end.

On the other hand, if a moderate and effective Palestinian Authority could be set on its feet and some degree of trust established with Israel, other pieces could snap into place fairly quickly. Everyone accepts that the terms of a final deal will look more or less like the plan that the Clinton administration floated in 2000. Determined efforts by outsiders, pushing both sides to make commitments and helping them keep those commitments, might make all the difference.

And so American involvement, although as risky as ever, suddenly seems much less futile. The current President Bush has three options:

Minimal engagement

The administration would look busy but remain mostly passive, on the theory that any peace must be worked out by the parties themselves and that a critical mass of Palestinians has not yet accepted coexistence with Israel. Though defensible with Arafat around, this approach now looks untenably risky in its own right. The Middle East conflict has become an impediment to U.S. foreign-policy goals from Iraq to Pakistan, and another few years of Israeli settlement-building and Palestinian anarchy could foreclose the two-state solution for good.

In a November press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush renounced minimalism. "We've got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state," and "we'll do what it takes to get a peace," Bush said. (Blair echoed, "What we will do is anything that is necessary to make this strategy work."

Moderate engagement

The U.S. would appoint a prominent diplomatic envoy to work full-time on the Middle East, but the president himself would keep a safe distance. This might protect the United States from ending up with egg on its face, as happened to President Clinton, and there is a case for operating discreetly to avoid upstaging the principals.

But moderation has a downside: While the administration is preoccupied with Iraq and Iran and North Korea and more, the Middle East conflict might quietly slip down the priority list. Absent quick results, moderate engagement might lapse into minimal engagement. The United States would have raised expectations only to fail to deliver, a worst-of-both-worlds result. This is exactly what some jaundiced Bush-watchers expect will happen.

Maximal engagement

As he has done in Iraq, Bush would attempt to transform the game by placing a wager he could not afford to lose. This approach, to repeat, does not imply a rush to final-status negotiations.

It does, however, imply a degree of hands-on presidential involvement that allows no gainsaying the administration's commitment and that leaves no stone unturned in the effort to lead the leaders.

Maximalism, too, is risky. It might fail spectacularly, weakening American prestige and inflaming the region. But it also might work—if the president puts the right sort of person in charge. A Middle East special envoy or "czar" would need to be someone who has the president's complete trust and authority; who possesses proven diplomatic skills and long experience with the issue; who commands "shock and awe" stature in the eyes of the region and the world; and who can work full-time on the issue when necessary (probably often).

Incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, though otherwise well qualified, lacks the time to be "Secretary of the Middle East" and to drop everything for Kissingerian shuttle diplomacy. The president could take the conn himself, but he has less time (and less diplomatic finesse) than Rice does, and in any case, he disdains emulating Clinton. Clinton has time, skill, and stature, but he lacks the trust of Bush and the Palestinians. Former Secretary of State James Baker is trusted by the president and the Palestinians but loathed by the Israelis.

Only one person hits every bull's-eye, and that is former President Bush. His authority, experience, and stature are beyond dispute. As for time, what does he have to do that's more important? Israelis view him as pro-Arab, but Arabs view his son as pro-Israel, so the two would form a balanced ticket. His very presence would transform the diplomatic scene by signaling a new level of U.S. involvement.

Risky, yes. The most risky option out there, except for all the others. The window of opportunity may not soon open again. What do you say, Presidents Bush?