Standing beside British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week at the White House on the day Yasser Arafat was buried, President Bush vowed that he would spend the "capital of the United States" over the next four years in pursuit of a "democratic, independent and viable state for the Palestinian people."
Creating a new dynamic in the Middle East that can override the current dominant image of a U.S. occupation of Iraq is vitally important. Middle East peace is an enduring national interest that, since 9/11, is even more closely linked to our own security. The president talks of staying on the offensive in the war on terrorism: making meaningful progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front is critical to reducing terrorist recruitment incentives and strengthening the hand of moderate Arab states. The president must back consistent and sustained U.S. engagement with personal involvement – his presidential capital – if we are to achieve his objective within four years. Otherwise, he risks a repeat of his first term experience, where grand pronouncements absent a genuine peace process and a realistic strategy produced no progress.
Coming into office, the president isolated Arafat following the Palestinian leader's rejection of a permanent status agreement with the Barak government and his failure to quell the second intifada. At U.S. insistence, the Palestinians established the position of prime minister, but Arafat never let either Abu Mazen or Abu Ala gain the authority to match the title.
Although moving past Arafat may have been a reasonable policy decision, the administration never truly engaged itself in the peace process. The president named the former CENTCOM commander, retired Marine Gen. Tony Zinni, as a special envoy but abandoned him in the field, allowing Zinni to be consistently undercut by Israel's ongoing assassination policy and predictable militant retaliation by Palestinian factions.
President Bush voiced public support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and in fact consistently claimed that he was "the first president" to take such a step. Ten months later, the administration released its "roadmap," a plan that laid out a series of steps for Palestinians and Israelis to take that would end the conflict by 2005.
But there was no sustained effort to implement the roadmap, nor any attempt to hold either party accountable. Eventually, the administration gave up any pretense of engagement with the Palestinians, which suited Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just fine. The president gave him political cover on the security barrier and West Bank settlements, adding new obstacles and grievances that will only complicate future negotiations.
Last week, the president placed another vision on the table and a date on the calendar: a Palestinian state by January 2009. The administration must now develop a strategy to get there. After the Camp David Accords, the shape of a final agreement that will produce a two-state solution is fairly well known. However, the president must first navigate the next 13 months. There is a genuine opportunity to get the parties back to a peace process thanks to the confluence of three realities: one, the emergence of new leadership with Palestinian elections; two, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza within the next year; and three, a new European interest in cooperation.
What are the key ingredients for an effective strategy for the next year?
Israeli support for Palestinian elections. A functioning democracy involves more than just elections. It requires governmental institutions that are responsible to and enjoy the confidence of the people. If the Palestinian Authority (PA) is going to move beyond Arafat, it needs a mandate from its people, which requires them to vote in significant numbers and gain a stake in a future Palestinian state.
During his press conference, President Bush rightly focused on the importance of freedom in the post-Arafat era, but failed to acknowledge the impact that Israel has in that process. Selecting a new president is a crucial decision for the Palestinian people, but Israel needs to play a key supporting role. The Sharon government can't decry the lack of a peace partner and then undermine elections that it hopes will produce a more responsible Palestinian leadership. Israel must be convinced to do what is necessary on the ground so that Palestinians both turn out for the election and see the outcome as credible and free of intimidation.
Regional support for new leadership. The president's commitment to go to Europe after his inauguration will be an important symbol of renewed cooperation between the United States and Europe. That cooperation must be matched in the region. Israel's decision to release $40 million in frozen tax revenue is a good first step. Easing more economic restrictions will provide badly needed revenue to help the PA get its financial house back in order.
At the same time, Arab states must exert leverage over Hamas and other militant groups, and offer political cover for difficult actions by the Authority that have been postponed for four years. The collective Palestinian leadership must demonstrate quickly that it is serious and consistent about terrorist attacks; will tackle internal corruption; is willing to make a difference in the daily lives of its citizens; and is prepared to negotiate realistically with Israel. The greatest challenge facing the new Palestinian leadership is doing something Arafat was never willing to do – preparing the Palestinians to compromise on the right of return and Jerusalem.
Success with Gaza transition. Unilateral actions are usually unhelpful, but the impending Israeli pullout from Gaza will provide an early test for both the Sharon government and the new Palestinian leadership. Neither side can afford to create a political vacuum for Hamas to exploit. The Israelis must bring the Palestinian Authority into the Gaza planning process, while also making clear that Gaza is another step – but not the last step – in transferring responsibility for occupied territories to Palestinian control. The Palestinians must accomplish a great deal: demonstrating an ability to assume effective political control in Gaza; enhancing security cooperation; and restoring freedom of movement and reducing Israeli friction on average Palestinians. Only then will the transfer be a catalyst for peace and the negotiation of final status issues.
Mr. Bush said repeatedly during the debates that the presidency is "hard work." As he refocuses on the Israeli-Palestinian track, the president has a chance to show that he can provide the serious and sustained U.S. leadership that progress in the Middle East requires.
P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served on the staff of the National Security Council and at the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.