There’s a certain degree of symbolism in that today [April 29] the Obama administration is launching discussions with the Arab League on renewing negotiations to end the conflict in the Middle East — exactly one day before the 10th anniversary of the Road Map [President Bush's peace initiative]. The central challenge for the sides is to find terms of reference that bypass the more difficult obstacles which they each pose: on the Palestinian side, the demand that Israel agree to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 borderlines (with mutual exchanges of land) and that it recognize a Palestinian state; on the Israeli side — the demand by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, alongside a Palestinian state.
The obvious solution is for the sides to negotiate based on the exact wording of the Road Map (UN Resolution 1515) and/or the Annapolis Declaration (Nov. 27, 2007). Since the author of both these initiatives (including a complete freeze on construction in the settlements) is “one of their own” presidents, the Republicans will be hard-pressed to present them as anti-Israeli and to place obstacles in their way on Capitol Hill. The Arab Peace Initiative, also born during the Bush administration, awaits President Barack Obama. On the other hand, it’s not clear whether Obama is so keen. And this is where Grover Norquist comes in.
The conservative lobbyist's reputation rests on being a leading long-time opponent of any president who expresses any intent of raising taxes, or even hints at one. Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), managed to obtain the signatures of virtually all Republican members of the US House of Representatives (236 of them) on a public commitment to fight against any sort of tax increase and to vote against it. By the way, the handful of representatives who refused to sign might have to pay with their seats in the next Congress. The name of the strongman from Washington came up recently when he led the hardest line in negotiations between the Republican majority in the House and the Obama administration over a bipartisan formula of economic reform sought by the president to save the United States from the “fiscal cliff.” On the other hand, as far as negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians, Obama might have found in Norquist and his friends loyal allies for a peace initiative. That's a certainty.
I got to know Grover Norquist and his wife, Samah Alrayyes, well some five years ago. The couple hosted a party at their home to launch “Lords of the Land,” a book I had written with professor Idith Zertal about Israel’s settlement policy. Mrs. Norquist told me that she was the daughter of Muslim Palestinian refugees who had landed in Kuwait. She also spoke of her longtime activity for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel and about the girl from Bethlehem they had decided to adopt. By the way, Norquist himself supported the construction of an Islamic culture center on Ground Zero.
On my next visit to the United States, Norquist invited me to speak at the Wednesday Breakfast Club, among whose members are all of the who’s who of conservative circles in Washington. I spoke about the price of the occupation and the settlements. I ended my talk with citations from the Road Map that President George W. Bush presented to the Israelis and Palestinians on April 30, 2003. Its main points are:
“The destination is a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005. … A settlement will result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors. … The settlement will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace, UNSCRs 242, 338 and 1397 … and the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah — endorsed by the Beirut Arab League Summit.” (That initiative also calls for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194 and normalization of ties between the countries of the Arab League and Israel).
I also quoted the articles that commit Israel to “immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001,” and to “freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”
Six months later, at Bush’s initiative, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to turn the Road Map into a formal resolution (Res. 1515). Four more years passed and in November 2007 Bush summoned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the heads of the Quartet [including the UN, Russia, the EU and the Americans] to the Annapolis Conference. At his opening speech, the president announced with much fanfare that both sides had agreed to immediate implementation of their commitments to the Road Map for a two-state solution and to “vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and … every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008."
Lots of water has flowed since then in the Potomac. Olmert vacated his seat to Benjamin Netanyahu and Bush passed the administration on to Barack Obama. Netanyahu (who voted in favor of the Road Map when he served a finance minister in the government of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) has been ignoring his predecessors’ commitments; Obama also opted for “reinventing the wheel” and wasted four years treading in place and making unsubstantiated speeches about the “peace process.”
In recent days I have been trying to find out from senior Israeli, American and Palestinian officials why Obama is giving up the important tool kit he inherited from the previous White House tenant. Why is the president not trying to enlist the support of people from the other side of the party divide, such as Norquist, who would gladly help him, for a joint effort to resolve the conflict? After all, is it not the goal which all recent US presidents have defined as “a strategic American interest?”
The answer I got was short and disappointing: “For the same reason that Bush ignored the President Bill Clinton initiative for ending the conflict.” The guidelines for a permanent arrangement remain as they were when President Bill Clinton presented them to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in December 2000: a Palestinian state on 94% to 96% of the Israeli-occupied territories; an exchange of 1% to 3% of the land; an international force along the border with Jordan; Palestinian sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount and Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish neighborhoods and the Western Wall; implementation of the Right of Return to Palestine and, on a limited basis, to Israel.
So, if all the initiatives are so similar, why do we have to start everything from scratch every time?
It seems that the main, if not the only, difference among the initiatives is that the policy during the Bush administration (2001 to 2009) was ABC — Anything But Clinton; when Obama took over in 2009, the policy gave way to ABB — Anything But Bush. And the unfortunate result of these games of ego and politics is the same: ABP — Anything But Peace.
Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic.