Eight years ago Bill Clinton was desperately fighting to shake off the Monica Lewinsky scandal and grasp at some bit of legacy at the end of his term, by forcing Yassir Arafat into a peace deal. It should have been easy, he faced an Israeli Prime Minister who was willing to make concessions that put his country in peril. This week George Bush is in the Middle East doing the exact same thing.

By Barry Rubin
Doesn’t it all sound so familiar? A president in the last year of his office decides that the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian issue can and will be put in order just in time for him to leave the White House, as if these complex, dangerous issues can be resolved like the happy ending of a 30-minute television show or 90-minute Hollywood film.
To paraphrase the nursery rhyme about circling endlessly, Bush is merely taking us around the mulberry bush once more in an exact replay of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Eight years ago, in his last twelve months in office, Clinton, too, decided that the conflict must be resolved right away, before his second term ended. Result: total, humiliating failure and a five-year-long bloody Palestinian war on Israel.
As if this were not enough–whether or not even more violence will follow– Bush, through no fault of his own, is in a far worse position to pursue this course than was his predecessor.
Let’s compare these two cycles and see what should have been learned already. Perhaps, though I doubt it, the next administration will figure things out better.
In 2000, a seven-year-long peace process was due for completion. The Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank had been turned over to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Yasir Arafat. The PA had been given billions of dollars and military equipment, becoming a virtual U.S. client. Despite these efforts, there was anarchy in the PA-ruled territory, constant incitement to violence against Israel on the official news media, no psychological or ideological preparation of Palestinians for peace by their leadership, and a massive wasting of funds.
Afterward, some analysts would explain away the failure by saying it was a mistake to force Arafat to the negotiating table for a decision. At the time, however, all one heard was how Arafat needed progress or he would lose control of his people and that the window of opportunity was closing. The U.S., Israeli, and European governments also wanted diplomatic progress for interests of their own. The result was not the Camp David and ensuing Clinton plan. The Palestinian leadership rejected both and instead opted for war.
Bush’s new policy may be a big change for him but, after all, he is merely making the same analysis and offering the same terms as his predecessor. It was an understanding of what went wrong with Clinton’s thinking and his generous bid—in part taught them by Clinton itself—that explains the Bush administration’s lower level of effort for most of its time in office.
What does Arafat’s situation and behavior tell us about his successors? In all but a single respect—and that one only apparently—things are worse. The one potential salvation was that Arafat had the power to make a deal if he wanted to do so. Of course, he did not. The Palestinian leader was restrained by his own character, ideology, and fear of his own people (who he had trained toward extremism for decades).
The apparent improvement regarding PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is that he is more willing to make peace. Yet this is more than counterbalanced by his extraordinary weakness. Not only has Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip but also Abbas does not have control over Fatah itself. If anything, Palestinian attitudes, where it counts in terms of public politics and not merely personal opinions, is even more extreme.
One can almost hear experts saying in a few years: “Of course it was a mistake to force Abbas into a position where he had to say `no’ instead of always saying `maybe.” And that’s why he fell from power to be replaced by Hamas [or even more anarchy].”
But aren’t the Palestinians desperate for a solution, given all their suffering? Don’t they pant after a state; won’t the refugees rejoice at returning from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan to the new state of Palestine?
The answer, as it was in Clinton’s time, is “no.” The ideology of extremist nationalism and Islamism, belief that total victory is possible, miscomprehension of Israel, and suspicion of the West are all still in place.
Even if there was a Palestinian leader able to transcend all those pressures he would still restrained by knowing that to make a deal might not only be personally fatal but–far more certain–would destroy his reputation and career. Nobody will act like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in making peace with Israel because look what happened to him (reviled, boycotted by the Arab world, and assassinated).
Nor do Palestinian leaders feel a need to run such risks. A far easier, successful policy is to take billions of Western aid dollars while doing nothing and blaming everything on Israeli intransigence and U.S. mistakes.
After all, who acts as if they desperately needed a diplomatic solution right away and would pay anything to get it? Not the Palestinians or the Arab states but, of course, the West and the United States. The bargaining tool of choice is: offer everything up front and ask for little or nothing in exchange.
Why is there such a shocking gap between reality and policy? In part, there is ample ignorance and foolishness but there are also solid reasons (though partly illusory ones) for the prevailing strategy. For U.S. policymakers, goals include trying to build an anti-Iran/Islamist alliance, gain domestic support, make European allies happy, and soothe Arabs and Muslims in the hope this will reduce Islamism and anti-Americanism.
Some policymakers are suitably cynical. Others are true believers who really think that solving the conflict will make all the other regional problems go away and are simply unaware why this issue is different from all other, at least non-Middle East, issues. The ultimate rationale is: we must try; it can’t hurt to try.
Of course nothing will happen. But the real question is whether anything is learned? Some will get wise, as happened in 2000; others won’t. They will find easy excuses: Bush was incompetent, if only the seating had been arranged differently or the plan worded differently, or the United States had tried five percent harder.
The great rock group Bill Haley & His Comets did a new version of the nursery rhyme in 1953, optimistically entitled, “Stop Beatin’ Round the Mulberry Bush” What is most important, though, is that history always has the last laugh. In the end, the intellectual supposes; the policymaker proposes, but reality has its way.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center http://www.gloriacenter.org and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal http://meria.idc.ac.il. His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).