Learning From Past Mistakes

Learning the lessons of the failure that ended in the outbreak of the second intifada could perhaps, even now, prevent the third intifada.

The self-criticism voiced by the four members of President Bill Clinton's peace talks team at last week's seminar organized by the Middle East Institute in Washington competed with their criticism of President George W. Bush's peace policy.

Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Aaron Miller and Rob Malley took a large chunk of the responsibility for the collapse of the peace process on themselves. The majority of the mistakes and flaws that they pointed out are also true of the Bush administration today. Learning the lessons of the failure that ended in the outbreak of the second intifada could perhaps, even now, prevent the third intifada.

Lesson No. 1: Ignoring the outcome of establishing facts on the ground through expanding settlements, during negotiations and of the effects of these activities on a permanent status agreement. Miller pointed out during the seminar that in the 25 years he served the U.S. administration, there was never "an honest conversation about what the Israelis were actually doing on the ground ... Nor were we prepared to impose ... a cost on the Israelis for their actions."

Ross excused this forgivingness with the Americans' fear of jeopardizing progress in the negotiations. If one replaces the word "negotiations" with "disengagement," we get the Bush administration's disregard for Sharon's repeated breach of his commitments to freeze settlement activity and tear down the outposts. All four agreed that while the previous administration also demonstrated forgivingness toward the Palestinian Authority's dealing with Palestinian violence, the current administration is not relinquishing its demand to implement a full reform of the Palestinian security forces.

Lesson No. 2: Following Israel's, and its lobbies', line on the final status agreement. Miller claimed that the U.S. all too often stepped into the role of Israel's lawyer and sometimes even allowed it to dictate the agenda. He pointed out that Ehud Barak forced Clinton to hold the Camp David Summit in 2000, against Yasser Arafat's wishes. Afterward, the president and his men were "awestruck" by Barak's "generous offer" to relinquish 90 to 91 percent of the West Bank instead of using the "fairness and workability of that percentage" as the departure point.

Ross, who headed the team for many years, explained that the Americans chose the Israeli offer as the departure point since Arafat did not present Clinton with an offer of his own. Bush seems to be following this same hopeless attitude: The PLO does not and will never have a proposal that differs essentially from the 1988 Algiers decision to accept a state based on the June 4, 1967 boundaries. There is not even the slightest hint that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will propose a plan that goes further than the Taba understandings, or the Geneva Initiative, which proposes suitable territorial compensation for the settlement blocs and a consensus agreement to the refugee problem. The unilateral commitment that Bush gave Sharon to back the annexation of "population centers" is a guarantee for the resounding explosion of the president's vision of a Palestinian state before the end of his presidency.

Lesson No. 3: There is no return without an investment from the highest echelons of the administration. Rob Malley stated that at certain stages of the negotiations, the superpower became "to some extent part of the furniture in the room." However, the man who was a senior adviser to the White House also added that "it's better to become the furniture in the room than not to be in the room at all."

Martin Indyk chose to concentrate on Clinton's readiness to try his luck in pushing through a deal, even though he knew he risked failure, unlike Bush, who plays it safe: Don't try and don't fail. Sharon will dismantle settlements in the West Bank, said the man who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, only if he is convinced that Bush is serious about seeing his vision realized. But this earnestness needs to be shown by appointing a special envoy on the level of a secretary of state, and not a part-time general with three assistants.

Miller reminded Bush of three Americans - Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and James Baker - who exhibited resoluteness toward Israel, but also secured its trust and actually produced agreements. All agreed that if Bush prefers to concentrate on the democratization of the Middle East instead of restarting the peace process and helping Abu Mazen make real headway in the upcoming Palestinian elections, the president will end up with no peace and no democracy.

And what about us?