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Opinion

Build on Bush's Middle East progress

Despite Bush's early mistakes, Obama's team can keep valuable momentum there.

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In a candid review of its failures, the Fatah-dominated PA concluded that the governing authority had operated with no plan for meeting the Islamist challenge. Instead of a laboratory for statehood, the West Bank and Gaza were treated like occupied territories. More than 10 Fatah militias came and went without apparent doctrine or objective.

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Despite these serious setbacks, the Bush administration kept the process alive, brokering talks between Abbas and Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert. In the fall of 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice invited a group of interested nations to Annapolis, Md. The event was rich in symbolism, confirming what the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians had for months been telling visitors: that Iran worried them far more than Israel, and they were thus prepared to play a constructive role in seeking an end to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is, like Sharon, a tough guy of the center-right but one publicly committed to a two-state solution. Encouraging reports from the West Bank describe improved commercial dealings between Israelis and Palestinians and credit the PA with taking meaningful strides toward a modern administration, including well-trained security forces.

No one suggests that an accord could be negotiated, ratified, and implemented with Hamas holding Gaza. But after a decent interval, more formal talks might begin with Mitchell playing an activist role. The starting point might be where the Clinton White House or, perhaps the Taba talks adjourned eight years ago. Most important, if the negotiators do achieve success, it would be wise to keep the deal on the shelf rather than seeking to implement it prematurely. Fatah could then campaign for public support as the only party capable of delivering on the dream of Palestinian statehood.

The downside is, of course, that critics of one compromise or another, or of the entire package, may have months to build opposition to ratification. If the accord is fair, though, the yearning for peace on both sides may well prevail and the pressure on Hamas, not only within the Palestinian community but from such neighboring powers as Jordan and Egypt, could prove decisive.

[Editor's Note: The original version misstated the roles of President Obama's Middle East team. George Mitchell is special envoy to the Middle East. Christopher Hill has been chosen to be the next ambassador to Iraq. Dennis Ross has been named an advisor on Iran.]

Robert Zelnick is a professor of journalism at Boston University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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