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Setting U.S. Policy on a Better Course

An Opening to Set U.S. Policy on a Better Course in the Middle East

Middle East Progress provides insight into what the president can do to keep momentum going on peace talks and stabilization.

President Bush leaves on his first extended trip to the Middle East today to boost his administration’s efforts in the troubled region as he heads into his final year in office. Stops are planned in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Cairo, and possibly elsewhere.

This trip will allow Bush to witness first hand the close connection between U.S. interests and the country’s role in working to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, develop a satisfactory resolution to the political stalemate in Lebanon, stabilize and move U.S. troops from Iraq, and deal more effectively with the threats posed by Iran. Pakistan will no doubt play a large role in his talks as well, given regional concerns about its precarious political situation and access to its nuclear arsenal.

The Bush administration seems, at last, to recognize some links between these challenges. Yet whether they can develop and implement a strategy that effectively leverages these connections in their remaining months is the question at hand. This trip will begin to provide the answer.

The first leg of the president’s trip will bring him to Israel and the West Bank, his first official visit to both. The main objective here is to move forward the negotiations process formally launched in Annapolis in November. The Annapolis meeting was impressive for two reasons: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s ability to get everyone in the room and both parties’ commitment to a joint statement to resolve all issues by the end of 2008.

Predictably, a jumpstart is needed already. More than $7 billion was committed to boost the Palestinian economy at a donors’ conference on December 17 in Paris, but violence along the Israel-Gaza Strip border has intensified with longer range rockets fired from Gaza. This and the announcement of an Israeli housing ministry plan to expand settlements in East Jerusalem almost immediately upon Prime Minister Olmert’s return from Annapolis overshadowed the first follow-up meeting between Olmert and President Abbas. On his trip, President Bush must bring fresh momentum to these negotiations, along with mechanisms for improvements on the ground and steps for building the Palestinian economy and reforming its institutions.

Notice of the president’s visit has sharpened incentives for performance. In anticipation of the visit, Olmert and Abbas announced a three-level framework for negotiations today. The framework would include direct discussion of core issues between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmed Qureia, with the negotiating teams working on the details and Olmert and Abbas as arbiters.

President Bush and Secretary Rice should build on these efforts, using the bilateral meetings to explore both sides’ red lines and begin to work out a process. Perhaps through the Quartet—the United States, European Union, Russia, and United Nations—and with the support of the international community a process can be developed to reach a resolution on the most difficult issues, such as Jerusalem and refugees.

Political progress is necessary, but not sufficient. While the two sides are talking, their peoples must see tangible results on the ground. Palestinians’ daily lives must improve. They need to be able to get to school and to work, and get their goods to market. They must see Israeli outposts in the West Bank that violate Israeli law removed in short order, along with a freeze on all Israeli settlement building and expansion. Israelis and Palestinians alike must see significantly improved law and order by the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinians must build and train their security services and dismantle militias and gangs.

The Joint Declaration at Annapolis promised that the United States would act as arbiter in monitoring this progress. Yet no official mechanism has been set up. In the days after Annapolis, General James L. Jones was appointed to be Special Envoy for Middle East Security. Jones, who has served in many challenging positions and is widely respected, would be an obvious choice for the monitoring role. We cannot afford the vacuum created when such a position remains unfilled, and we must ensure that whomever is appointed, the president makes clear that the person and the process has his full backing.

Finally, there is a need to focus on building the Palestinian economy and institutions. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Quartet’s special envoy, is tasked with leading this effort. The December 17 donors’ conference exceeded expectations, but it is only a beginning.

Many challenges lie ahead in rebuilding the framework for managing and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflicts: Hamas’ control of Gaza, divisions among the Palestinians, an Israeli prime minister facing opposition at home, and extremists on all sides of the conflict could to derail progress. The outlines of an agreement are widely known, but the parties must find a resolution that they will and can implement. In such a situation, progress is possible when the United States and the international community step up to the plate—in part by keeping all eyes on the horizon and focusing on what is possible, what is necessary, and what lies ahead for the best interests of all—and helps map a route for getting there.

Secretary Rice has said that resolving this conflict is one of the major priorities for the administration in its final year. President Bush should take advantage of this trip to build on progress already made and show his full and complete commitment and engagement. Making progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front is a cornerstone to setting U.S. policy for the region back on track.

The Middle East Bulletin has been covering the possibilities and challenges following Annapolis, along with U.S. policy toward other Middle East hotspots, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. During President Bush’s upcoming visit to the region, these original commentaries and other pieces from the Bulletin offer a series of analyses about the situation on the ground and U.S. policy options.

Perseverance Is Required

Senator George J. Mitchell, former Senate majority leader; chairman, Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee & chairman, Northern Ireland peace negotiations. Interview with Middle East Bulletin (11/30/07)

Choosing the Annapolis Road

Mara Rudman and Brian Katulis, advisers to Middle East Progress, original commentary for the Middle East Bulletin (11/30/07)

Beyond Annapolis

Gadi Baltiansky, former press secretary to Prime Minister Ehud Barak & director general of the Geneva Initiative, interview for Middle East Bulletin (11/28/07)

Engaging Hamas: The When and the How

Rafi Dajani, executive director, American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) and Ghaith Al-Omari, advocacy director, ATFP, Senior Fellow, New America Foundation, originally published in the Orlando Sentinel, updated for Middle East Bulletin (12/07/07)

Israeli-Syrian Track Needs American Support

Debra DeLee, President & CEO, Americans for Peace Now, Original Commentary for Middle East Bulletin (07/25/07)

Learning from the Israel-Hizbullah War

Moran Banai and Mara Rudman, Middle East Progress (07/13/07)

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