Forget the cliches. The accepted wisdom is that George W. Bush "abandoned" the Israeli-Arab conflict, paying it nothing but lip service. By this view, had he only gotten involved and forced Israel to leave the territories, we would long since have been living in a New Middle East, a thriving, pro-American region. But Bush ignored the conflict, and the result was a rise in extremism, the distancing of the two-state vision and the increasing erosion of the legitimacy of Israel's existence as a Jewish state.
Such claims are fine for a campaign, where the focus is on criticizing the outgoing president. But now it is time for reality - which is rosier than it might seem. During the Bush administration's eight years in office, the slow processes of Israel leaving the territories and the Arabs reconciling themselves to Israel's existence continued. This occurred despite two wars that killed thousands of people - the second intifada and the Second Lebanon War - and despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority disintegrated and Israel became mired in a leadership crisis.
Does that sound delusional? Here are the facts: Israel left the Gaza Strip and evacuated 25 settlements. A mini-state led by Hamas arose in the Strip, proving that the Palestinians can govern themselves, even under difficult siege conditions. The Arab League twice approved a peace initiative that offers Israel normalized relations and integration into the region if it leaves the territories and contributes to solving the refugee problem. Israel resumed negotiations with both Syria and the Palestinians from where they left off eight years ago. Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton's proposals for dividing the land, which were ostensibly shelved when the two left office, have risen from the dead.
Bush's impact on these developments was secondary, aside from his support for the disengagement and his (unintentional) contribution to Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections. On the other hand, during his tenure, Iran approached the threshold of nuclear capability, Hezbollah became a strategic threat and Gaza terrorized the surrounding area, until Israel agreed to a cease-fire. The conclusion is that the Middle East does not look great, but it also contains opportunities.
Be a nudnik. Bush's Middle East problem was not a lack of ideas. He was convinced that a Palestinian state was in American interests, and his rhetoric went beyond that of his predecessors in terms of his commitment to the two-state solution. But he had trouble backing up his ideas with action, and most of his initiatives soon evaporated in the face of Israeli and Palestinian determination to continue fighting. Condoleezza Rice succeeded in convening the Annapolis conference, in somehow preserving the Palestinian Authority as a partner for negotiations and in extracting an offer from Ehud Olmert to leave all the territories solely because she nagged both Israelis and Palestinians. Therefore, do not let the sides wear you down with excuses. Wear them down, with polite insistence.
Start with Syria. The Arabs and Europeans will flood you with pleas to solve the Palestinian problem. They will argue that this is the source of all the problems in the Middle East. But the chances of obtaining an agreement are slim. Good intentions and "100 percent effort" will not be enough to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The gaps are too wide; the Palestinian side is split between a hostile Hamas and a fading Fatah; and Israel is afraid of a settler intifada. You need an achievement, and quickly. Therefore, forget the Palestinians for now and move forward on the Syrian track.
The Syrian track is less complicated than the Palestinian mess. There is no argument over whether Bashar Assad can supply the goods - facilitating your exit from Iraq and your dialogue with Iran, and moderating the Hamas and Hezbollah threats. Israel's leader will also have more freedom of action with regard to Syria than he or she will have on talks with the Palestinians about dividing Jerusalem and allowing refugees to return. No Israeli government has fallen over the Golan Heights.
The problem with the Syrian track is that the status quo is convenient for both sides: Israel wants to stay in the Golan, and Syria fears domestic change. Only active American leadership, to move the process forward and support it through security arrangements and economic aid, can break this stalemate. Even then, there is no guarantee of success, but at the moment, your best shot at a Nobel Peace Prize lies between Jerusalem and Damascus.
Beware of surprises. "All our wars began in circumstances that afterward should have required very thorough investigations to explain and understand why they began at all," Moshe Dayan once said. That statement is always true in the Middle East, where war is liable to break out at any moment, and it is especially true today, against the background of the Iranian bomb, an expected changing of the guard in Egypt and wild fluctuations in oil prices.
Your predecessors were judged by their handling of crises, and two of them - Richard Nixon and George Bush senior - succeeded in leveraging the Yom Kippur War and the Gulf War to advance peace between Israel and the Arabs. You would do well to learn from their experience, because the next crisis will land on you.
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