The Faulty Pleasant Approach

The U.S. administration believes its role is to encourage Israel and the PA to reach an agreement, but it does not believe in forcing its views on the two sides. This is an enlightened, pleasant approach, but in the Mideast jungle it is terribly out of place.

Underwear was among the many things the United States supplied Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This urgent shipment was somewhat ironic: It completely contradicted the dominant ethos of the previous 15 years and found expression in Haim Hefer's song "Cannons instead of socks." Hefer's lyrics, sung by the Nahal troupe, were part empathy and part criticism of the soldier's willingness to give up comfort and clothing for another gun and another tank.

The war came and showed that the state did neither: It did not procure the necessary war materiel and did not ensure that there was enough underwear in stock.

Since the United States came to Israel's rescue from the dire situation of October 1973 - through a dramatic airlift that provided the Israel Defense Forces with everything from Phantom fighters to T-shirts - the two countries have maintained a patron-client relationship that has not worked sufficiently during George W. Bush's eight-year tenure at the White House.

For yet another time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Jerusalem and Ramallah yesterday, holding the ritual meetings with the Israeli leadership and the heads of the Palestinian Authority. A look back at the Bush presidency leads to the conclusion that despite his genuine wish to further Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, he has failed. From January 2001 the conflict has undergone many upheavals, but the American contribution to settling it has been minimal in practice. The superpower's bargaining power vis-a-vis the Israelis and Palestinians has not been used wisely.

Ideology lies behind this: The U.S. administration believes its role is to encourage Israel and the PA to reach an agreement and contribute to creating the conditions for the change to take place. But it does not believe in forcing its views on the two sides.

This is an enlightened, pleasant approach, but in the Mideast jungle it is terribly out of place. In an era when Israel needs the FBI to crack its homegrown organized crime, the United States can stress more forcefully, both to Israelis and Palestinians, their dependency - in order to shake them out of the status quo.

At the start of his tenure, Bush laid out an outline for resolving the dispute: negotiations toward an interim agreement, which would focus on establishing a Palestinian state with temporary borders. Several months later Bush changed his mind and put forth the road map. This offered what was essentially the opposite formula: a push for a permanent-status agreement within three years. Soon after, the Iraq war broke out and the Bush administration turned toward extricating itself from that quagmire. The Israeli-Palestinian process has since held a secondary position on the president's daily agenda.

Therein lies Bush's big failure: Eight years is enough time for the most powerful country in the world, even when it is busy on other fronts, to take steps to loosen the Israeli-Palestinian entanglement, which Washington considers a focal point for instability in the region, if not the world. This mission was not carried out: The United States allowed Israel and the Palestinians to engage in a bloody struggle, even though they sought its involvement (according to public opinion polls, at least on the Israeli side).

One can argue that this description is deceptive: The fact is, the Bush administration did not allow Israel to avoid approving the road map, which it did not like very much; the fact is, to encourage Israel to carry out the Gaza disengagement, Bush offered it a carrot in the form of a letter, which implied that the permanent borders would be influenced by the settlement blocs and that Palestinian refugees would not return to Israel; the fact is, the Bush administration managed to force Israel to come to terms with free elections in the territories, which brought Hamas to power; the fact is, the Bush administration began the Annapolis process, where elements of the possible permanent-status agreement were discussed. It is also possible to argue that developments that neither the United States nor Israel controlled have shaped the situation significantly.

There is some truth to these claims, but they do not counterbalance the fact that Israel refuses to relinquish its hold over the West Bank. To a significant extent this determines the conflict's current status. This was blatantly highlighted this week: According to a Peace Now report, settlement construction doubled in the first five months of the year compared to the same period last year. The Bush administration is not exempt of responsibility for this.