At the start of his term at the White House, President George W. Bush kept himself as far away as possible from the Middle Eastern policy of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Indeed, Clinton’s failure to personally secure a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal in his last year in office was still fresh and resonating. However, now that Bush is nearing the end of his term, he is repeating Clinton’s moves and is doing it due to similar motives.
US presidents tend to personally get involved in international negotiations in two cases: When there are fears that stagnation will lead to war, or when a good opportunity for an achievement emerges, usually as a result of significant changes in regional and international theaters.
On top of that, in his last year in office every president thinks about his legacy and the manner in which he will be commemorated in American history. Clinton was bothered by the possibility that his legacy will be remembered in a negative, problematic light. The Oslo process and negotiations with Syria that started during his term encountered difficulties and reached a dead-end. At the same time, he got entangled in the Monica Lewinsky affair and barely avoided impeachment.
In 2000, Clinton feared the collapse of the Oslo process and deterioration in Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, and therefore he hosted two conferences aimed at securing comprehensive peace among Israel and its neighbors by the end of his term – that is, within less than a year. By doing so, he aspired to dull the effect of the Lewinsky affair. In Shepherdstown he led talks with Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, and in Camp David he hosted Barak and Arafat. Both attempts failed.
Artificial target dateIn his last year in office, President Bush is finding himself in a similar situation. He got entangled in a failed and controversial war in Iraq, he is unable to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and he cannot curb the steep rise in oil prices. His approval rating has reached an unprecedented low, and he is very concerned about leaving a dubious mark on American history.
Secretary of State Rice convinced Bush that an opportunity has emerged for promoting a comprehensive agreement in the Middle East that may significantly improve the president’s image in America’s annals. In Rice’s view, the opportunity was created in light of the growing Iranian threat on moderate Arab countries, Hamas’ Gaza takeover, and the results of the Second Lebanon War. All of the above are supposed to moderate Arab states’ traditional attitude to Israel, while at the same time push Israel to offer concessions that would facilitate a breakthrough in talks with the Palestinians.
This is the backdrop to the initiative that has brought the various parties to the Annapolis conference. The timetable for ending the talks is, surprise, surprise, perfectly commensurate with the end of Bush’s term at the White House. The problem with this approach, as was proven by Clinton’s similar attempt, is that the pace of the American political clock is incommensurate with the negotiation and political clocks of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The setting of an artificial target date such as the end of Bush’s term is not a serious move, and may lead to inflated expectations that cannot be met.
The US Administration must synchronize its own watch with the Mideastern watch, while understanding once and for all that moves aimed at securing a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement cannot be timed by Washington’s political clock. Yet as Bush has hit rock bottom, even achievements that are much less than a comprehensive agreement could help in securing his place in American history.
Professor Eitan Gilboa is a political science and communication lecturer, a US expert, and a senior researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center