On Eve of Summit, State Dept Rewrites Middle East History
As Condoleezza Rice prepares to host the Middle East summit in Annapolis this week, her State Department has issued an updated historical timeline of American efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The timeline is a fascinating document both for what it reveals and what it leaves out. The rise of Hamas and its election victories are mentioned nowhere. That might just be because President Bush's hands-off policy of malign neglect is in part responsible for it.
The State Department's "Middle East Peace Chronology" lists key events, American diplomatic initiatives and other international efforts dating back to the Camp David accords brokered by Jimmy Carter in 1978. The Oslo Accords, peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, the Wye River summit are all described. The 2003 premiership and later 2005 presidential election Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas ("Mahmoud Abbas wins the Palestinian presidential elections with 62.3 percent of the votes cast") are detailed. The November 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, an act of God central to President Bush's policy in the region, is listed as well.
What is glaringly absent from the Condi Rice's picture of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is any mention of Hamas. That group, part political party, part social organization, part terrorist organization, is excluded despite constituting the central reality on the ground over the past two years. Its forces now control Gaza, having routed the Fatah cadres there. And in January 2006, Hamas won an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian elections, capturing 76 of 132 seats in the parliament to only 43 for Abbas' Fatah.
Given the centrality of democracy promotion to the Bush Doctrine, the omission of the Hamas victory at the polls might seem puzzling. But that seeming mystery disappears upon reflection. After all, the rise of Hamas was not only a disaster for the Bush administration; it was the by-product of its own strategy in the region. And worse still, no one in President Bush's cabinet saw it coming.
In 2006, Secretary of State Rice admitted as much. As the New York Times detailed:
"I've asked why nobody saw it coming," Ms. Rice said, speaking of her own staff. "It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."
Despite the infusion of American cash and USAID resources to Abbas' party in the run-up to the elections, Hamas won its smashing victory. But in retrospect, that outcome should have been no surprise. The Palestinian voters rejected the rampant corruption and economic stagnation of the Fatah government, as well as its utter failure to make headway in countering the Israeli occupation. And perhaps just as important, President Bush's years-long refusal to negotiate with Yasser Arafat left Fatah impotent and emasculated.
In March 2002, Israeli forces assaulted Arafat's Ramallah compound in the wake of Palestinian terrorist attacks and the PLA's efforts to acquire weapons. By that summer, President Bush in essence endorsed the Ariel Sharon's position that Arafat was "irrelevant" and "an enemy" that "will be isolated." In a major address on June 24, 2002, Bush announced that the United States would no longer work with Arafat's Palestinian Authority, a government he claimed had "no authority" and was "unaccountable." Calling for "new Palestinian leadership," Bush ironically foreshadowed the disastrous Hamas landslide to come:
"I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts."
But only now, in the twilight of his presidency, does President Bush offer the appearance of engagement in helping resolve the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps the central factor in global Muslim animus (and Al Qaeda propaganda) towards the United States, the Israeli occupation was not an issue on which Bush would expend effort and political capital.
As the State Department timeline shows, that was clear from the inception of the Bush presidency. Rejecting Bill Clinton's approach of direct, personal American involvement, Bush's unique combination of arrogance and petulance endured the United States would not only not be an honest broker between the Palestinians and the Israelis; it wouldn't be a broker at all. Whereas Clinton hosted summits in the U.S., traveled to the Palestinian territories, partnered with regional leaders to convene conferences in Europe and the Middle East, George W. Bush preferred to passively remain on the sidelines. Even his occasional statements on the conflict came from the comfort of home:
- September 20, 2006. President Bush meets with the Palestinian president on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly...
- April 14, 2004. President Bush sends a letter...
- June 24, 2002. President Bush, speaking from the White House, calls for new Palestinian leadership...
- April 4, 2002. President Bush, speaking from the White House, outlines his vision...
And so it goes. On the eve of the U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference at the Naval Academy, the Bush administration lowers expectations. While President Bush will speak at the event and host a diplomatic dinner for the attendees from Arab countries including Syria, he will play no hands-on role in driving the process forward. As former Clinton Middle East envoy Dennis Ross described the agenda-less conference just last week:
"You can't just have everybody convene in what was going to be a conference. And I'm - then I guess it became a meeting. Pretty sooner it'll be a get-together and before we're done, it's going to be a hoedown."
A hoedown, at least, is something the Texan George W. Bush understands. We'll just have to check back next week to see if it appears in Condi Rice's official history.