To keep the world's tinder box from exploding even more violently, George W. Bush's successor is going to have to pursue a radically different Middle Eastern policy. Some policy pointers: Get out of Iraq. Work with (some) Islamists. Create the Palestinian state. Thereby, undercut al-Qaeda.
Anti-American sentiments run high at a 2005 rally in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Listen carefully when a new president is inaugurated next January for the sigh of relief coming from most of those Middle Easterners whom President Bush embraced as allies. Conversely, Bush's rivals in the region are likely to tune in to the occasion in a disgruntled mood. For them the Bush years have been good for business. The menu of grievances on which they've fed has become a veritable feast. Opposition to American designs in the region -- deployed with different emphases and with different goals by al-Qaeda, Iran, Hamas, Syria, and Hezbollah, to name but a few -- has been an easy sell and has won countless new adherents.
A Palestinian youth, backdropped by part of the destroyed metal border wall between Gaza and Egypt. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
The last week has been a period of grace, of partial freedom for the 1.4 million residents of the large open-air prison also known as Gaza. Last Wednesday, Hamas activists apparently blew up the border barriers between Gaza and Egypt, and by morning it was a free-for-all. Gazans, used to being blockaded into 360 square kilometers, turned the Egyptian border towns of Rafah and El Arish into an impromptu and unlikely shopping mall/holiday resort. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Gazans streamed into the Egyptian Sinai to stock up on basic goods and supplies, to visit family, and to enjoy a respite from the claustrophobia of Gaza.
The dust is beginning to settle on a new Palestinian reality. Official statements from Washington, Israel, and the new Palestinian government in Ramallah suggest a policy consensus: betting everything on the Mahmoud Abbas/Fatah option against Hamas, with goodies for the West Bank, while Gaza is kept on a strict diet. This is the proposed shortcut to a two-state solution. It may sound new, but it's really the old Plan A on steroids -- non-engagement with Hamas combined with the expectation of Abbas and Fatah delivering everything under these circumstances.
The congressional leadership and the White House have just reached a deal over war spending that drops a timetable for withdrawal and focuses instead on benchmarks that the Iraqi government should meet. At the same time, the president has further rubbed the Democrats' collective noses in mud with a speech given at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, wherein he delivered a new version of the spurious accusation that opposition to the war in Iraq is tantamount to support for al-Qaeda.
Three former peace negotiators for Israel, the U.S., and Palestine lay out a common plan that could provide the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian final settlement. All that's required is some political courage and leadership.
It has barely been noticed, but there has been a change for the better in the Bush administration's thinking -- or at least talking -- about the Middle East. For the first time in six years, Washington is putting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations near the top of its agenda. For the first time, it wants those negotiations to address the fundamental political issues that divide the two sides and has begun to evoke the need to lay out what the administration calls a political horizon. And for the first time, it seems willing to take a risk.