A Principled Peace Process

Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni may have been looking beyond the Bush administration when she met last week in Washington with a group of Middle East experts and told them Israel expects "any U.S. administration" to act in accordance with the basic principles "outlined by President Bush in a recent letter signed by the U.S. Congress."

The irony of her remark is that the morass of the current "peace process" stems from the failure by the administrations in both Jerusalem and Washington to observe the first principle in that letter.

The Bush letter was issued on April 14, 2004 to Prime Minister Sharon, and while Congress did not literally sign it, it was explicitly approved in June 2004 by Concurrent Resolution 460.  That resolution recited the principles of the Bush letter, noted they had emerged as part of a dialogue between the two leaders, and put Congress on record as "strongly endorsing" them. 

Israel's 2005 Gaza disengagement is usually described as "unilateral," since it was not the result of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.  But it was part of a bilateral agreement with the United States -- described as a "deal" by Ariel Sharon to both the Israeli press and the Knesset.  The letter was included in the official Disengagement Plan as "an integral part of it" with a notation that the "understandings with the United States will only be valid if the disengagement plan is approved by Israel."

The disengagement plan involved steps by Israel far beyond its Phase I Roadmap obligations.  Obligated only to dismantle post-March 2001 illegal "outposts," Israel proposed to dismantle all its longstanding settlements in Gaza, plus additional ones in the West Bank, withdraw all its military forces from Gaza, and turn over control of the Gaza-Egypt border to the Palestinians -- all in exchange for the American commitments memorialized in the Bush letter. 

The assurances in the Bush letter, relating to final status negotiations, were that America would support defensible borders for Israel, rather than a complete return to the 1967 lines, recognize that Israel would retain its major settlement blocs, and declare that return of refugees to Israel was not "realistic."  The word "realistic" was charged with diplomatic meaning, because Phase III of the Roadmap called for a "realistic" solution to the issue of refugees.

But the first assurance in the Bush letter -- set forth in unambiguous terms -- was that the United States would not support any peace plan other than the Roadmap, with its requirement that, before final status negotiations could begin, the Palestinians had to commence sustained and effective operations to dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure, among other obligations.  As its official title stated, the Roadmap was a "Performance-Based Plan," with progression to each phase expressly conditioned on performance of the prior one. 

This principle was of utmost importance to Sharon, because he understood Israel could not negotiate a peace agreement while terrorist groups and their infrastructure remained in existence, even if the agreement were conditioned on later dismantlement of terrorism.  Once a peace agreement was reached, the world would inevitably insist on its immediate implementation -- arguing the establishment of a Palestinian state was itself the only way to end terrorism -- or force Israel to acquiesce in a conclusion that, if the terrorist groups were absorbed into the Palestinian "security forces," they had been "dismantled." 

The Bush letter also recognized that if the Palestinians could not fulfill their existing Roadmap promise to dismantle terrorism as a condition of final status negotiations, Israel could not reasonably rely on any promises made in the negotiations themselves. 

Mr. Sharon repeatedly described the Bush letter as an American "commitment" and an agreement that "any steps towards realizing the political outlook" under the Roadmap "first obligates [the Palestinians] to take genuine action against terror."  He referred to the "letter of commitment" as a "comprehensive agreement" with the United States. 

Israel carried out its end of the bargain, and Mr. Sharon thought the Palestinians would thereafter either have to comply with their Phase I Roadmap obligations or that, if the Palestinians failed to do so, Israel would be given a free hand to dismantle the groups and infrastructure itself.  He was wrong on both counts, as was his assurance to the country about his availability after the disengagement:  "I am not going anywhere -- I wanted you to know that."

Four months later he went into a coma and was not around to see Secretary Rice begin her 13 trips to push Israel into immediate Phase III negotiations.  He would have been shocked at Ms. Rice's proud announcement she had overcome "the tight sequentiality of the Roadmap"   -- or his successor's agreement to such a process.

The greatest damage from the disregarded process, however, will be to the legacy of the Bush administration.  The Roadmap was a signal accomplishment of the administration:  it got the UN, the EU, Russia, the Palestinian Authority and Israel all to agree to a single process, with three clearly delineated steps.  Even after the Palestinians failed to dismantle a single terrorist group -- not even the one "loosely linked" with Fatah itself -- the administration negotiated with Israel for a difficult and painful dismantlement of major settlements (not just "outposts") and a complete withdrawal from Gaza, in order to give the Palestinians a chance to demonstrate they could "live side by side in peace and security" with Israel.

The Palestinians promptly elected their premier terrorist group to control their legislature, and the group immediately started fulfilling its campaign promises with daily rockets into Israel, smuggling of massive new weaponry into Gaza, and eventually a violent coup.  Israel now has an Iranian satellite on its southern border, matching the one on its northern border.

The reaction of the administrations in Jerusalem and Washington has been not to abide by the terms of the Bush letter, but to concede the fundamental first principle in it.  Condoleezza Rice promptly re-defined "final status issues" as "core issues" to be addressed first rather than last.  At U.S. urging, Israel is currently negotiating while under fire, with a Palestinian entity representing the rump state of Ramallah that has no ability to fulfill any promises it might make in the "negotiations," and which requires IDF presence to insure it does not suffer still another coup.  

The only way to have brokered an effective peace process was to insist on dismantlement of terrorist infrastructure first -- as the US, UN, and EU required under the Roadmap -- not to disingenuously promise it for later and concentrate instead on pressing Israel for political and security concessions to bolster the perennially fragile Palestinian "confidence."  As the "peace process" winds its way to its predictable collapse or fig-leaf conclusion later this year, President Bush and Secretary Rice will likely leave behind another failed process that will have damaged rather than advanced the cause of peace. 

It could have been different, had first principles been followed.  It is particularly troubling that they were disregarded notwithstanding a formal U.S. commitment to abide by them.  If "any U.S. administration" in the future hopes to broker an effective peace process, it will need to return to the agreement that Ariel Sharon negotiated and insist that the Palestinians dismantle their terrorist groups first.  Perhaps the Palestinians, using the democracy the Bush administration gave them, will someday elect a government that will do so.

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