Mideast Policy Tug-of-War

Most of the reaction to President Bush’s speech on the Middle East last week focused on its content, especially his dual call for a Palestinian leadership change and the creation of a Palestinian state within three years.

But regardless of the merits or feasibility of these substantive positions, the speech, above all, reflected the continuing tension within different corners of the Bush administration and how this tension can change the aims of policy.

The aim of the speech had changed substantially by the time it was delivered. Initially, it was tied to convening a Middle East peace conference this summer. When violence in the Middle East escalated in April and May, with continuing Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel and harsh Israeli measures in the West Bank, public opinion in the Middle East and in the United States pushed the administration to announce a new diplomatic initiative.

After consulting leaders from the region, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the intention to host a conference that would revive the Middle East peace process. But even before Mr. Powell had a chance to articulate details, the White House played down the idea, suggesting that the gathering would be a “meeting,” not a “conference.”

Regardless of the nature of the gathering, the idea emerged that President Bush would deliver a speech in which he would lay out the American positions, especially the U.S. vision for a final settlement, in a way that would guide the agenda for such a gathering.

To Washington observers, the question seemed to focus on the extent to which the speech would spell out the details of the U.S. vision, especially on the eventual borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

The State Department was seen to want more clarity while the White House and the Pentagon were viewed as aiming for breaking no new ground on U.S. positions on issues of a final peace settlement and focusing more on the need for Palestinian reforms.

In the end, not only was the speech more pronounced on reform, but it added the new demand for a leadership change, broke no new ground on the parameters of a final settlement and omitted any reference to a conference.

The idea of focusing on Palestinian reform emerged as a way of addressing genuine concerns about the functioning of the Palestinian Authority and diverting attention from the shining spotlight on Yasser Arafat that had put the administration’s position in a box in April, when Israeli forces surrounded and pounded Mr. Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah.

Throughout that crisis, Mr. Bush put the onus on Mr. Arafat even as Israeli forces pounded Palestinian cities and even though the U.S. position toward the Palestinian leader alienated people and governments in the Arab world.

Mr. Sharon and many of his advisers felt that they finally had Mr. Arafat. But as public opinion in the Arab world rallied behind the Palestinian leader as a form of defiance, Mr. Bush demanded, after meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, that the siege of Mr. Arafat be ended. Mr. Sharon obliged, not only because he wanted to maintain the warm relationship that he had forged with Mr. Bush, but also because he saw it as the price to get Mr. Bush to support Israel’s rejection of a U.N. mission to investigate Israel’s military operation in Jenin.

From this came the idea of focusing on Palestinian reform instead of on Mr. Arafat.

For the State Department, this seemed a good move, if done well. It diverted attention from Mr. Arafat while shedding light on the real institutional problems of the PA. Everyone agrees on the need for reform, including the Palestinian public.

But the State Department, like many in the Middle East and around the world, especially in Europe, was concerned that reform may be seen as a precondition for restarting peace negotiations. When the impression was given that the White House sees reform as a precondition, the State Department was quick to offer a different interpretation.

Mr. Bush’s speech made it stunningly clear in its insistence that not only was reform a precondition for U.S. support for a Palestinian state, but that there be a change in leadership. The most important incentive Mr. Bush put on the table for the Palestinians was statehood within three years. But who will interpret the degree to which the Palestinians will meet Mr. Bush’s conditions before U.S. support materializes?

Undoubtedly, those within the administration who see that true reform is not fully possible without progress in peace negotiations will continue to imagine that they can moderate the interpretation of what reforms mean, and nudge Mr. Bush toward a more active diplomatic role—even if Mr. Arafat continues at the helm of the PA.

But the trend of the past several months shows that this is wishful thinking. Whatever the intent of such ideas as Palestinian reform, the peace conference, or Mr. Bush’s speech, the outcome did not match that intent.

This reality should be sobering.

Certainly, all U.S. administrations have had bureaucratic competition and differences of view, and much of that is healthy since no one benefits from group think. And certainly domestic politics and Congress always affect the priorities of every administration, and this, too, is part of the American democracy.

But in this case, there is more: two conflicting views of the world, two paradigms, that coexist uncomfortably within the administration, with the compromise outcome not fully serving the interest of either.

For the Middle East, the net outcome is puzzlement and confusion about the aims of U.S. foreign policy.