U.S. President George Bush is finishing his tenure in office precisely as he began it: still determined not to repeat the mistakes of the previous administration, that of Bill Clinton. In 2000 this determination had one face: stopping over-investment in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Bush saw his predecessor buried under the rubble of Camp David and found no reason to retrace that same path. On February 9, 2001, the Bush administration announced that the Clinton proposals during that failed summit "were no longer United States proposals."
Then came 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq - and then the Bush speech and the eschewal of Yasser Arafat. The peace process was restored to the center of the arena very late, some would even say too late during the Bush administration.
But now, too, the president is still determined not to repeat what the previous president did. Hopefully, he will be sufficiently determined. Well-positioned persons note that Clinton passed down to his successor a dysfunctional peace process. A violent intifada. The size of the abyss into which the two sides slid was commensurate to Clinton's ambition to bring an end to the conflict.
A senior official described it thus: "Clinton drove an expensive race car in order to reach the end of the race, but spun at the curve. What Bush got from him was not a car but a pile of rubble." The outgoing president - in 10 months - intends to leave his successor the keys to a car in working order.
Bush will visit Israel in May for the jubilee celebrations, which the two sides do not intend to spoil with disagreements. Therefore, the two preceding visits of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice need to pass without problems. Rice has made her position clear, and Israel is trying to find creative ways of placating the mediator. For example, the commercial zone in Tarkumia. For example, allowing Palestinian policemen into Jenin. Mutual recriminations will surely be made ad nauseam, but the basic idea is agreeable to both Salam Fayyad and Ehud Barak: the slow development of Palestinian society and economy as the sole path with a chance to end in a stable agreement.
The solutions that will emerge in coming weeks have one problem: they don't offer good headline material. A briefing by the U.S. State Department this week reflected how problematic this is, not only for the Israeli government, eager to show progress without aggravating the opposition, and the Palestinian government that wants to show achievements, but also for Rice and her staff.
"Can you point to anything in that period [since Annapolis] that demonstrates that either side is meeting their road map obligations?," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was asked. His long-winded response was not satisfactory. Once more: "The Secretary, I think it was about 10 days ago, said that neither side had done nearly enough." And again: "I wonder if you can point to anything that either side has done?" No, McCormack admitted, not enough, maybe one or two things. "Are you going to take that and post it?" the reporters insisted.
This is a temptation that will be difficult to overcome. This is true for Rice, who is stepping down with Bush; for Mahmoud Abbas, who may also step down at the same time; and for Ehud Olmert, for whom the negotiations card is the only political card he holds. Without a major achievement, there is no headline, no legacy, no card. There is only that same car, which drives slowly, stops, replaces its driver and keeps on driving. Too slow a process for irritated journalists yearning for a development before the deadline.
This is a dilemma that Secretary Rice also recognizes as she tries to negotiate the two paths of the Israeli-Palestinian interchange; the path of construction according to the road map and the path of negotiations toward a permanent settlement. Rice wants a permanent agreement document very much, but also sees its risks. If the talks break down because of Jerusalem or the right or return, or the agreement of principles, the road map path will also be blocked, which will be a reenactment of the Clinton mistake.
Rice does not want to see this happen, nor does Bush. Seven years after taking office, the president is no longer a dangerous, inexperienced driver. Bush is now behaving like a responsible adult, who is no longer looking for major headlines but only to pass on a policy that is worthy of continuing: in Iraq, in North Korea, and also in the Israeli-Palestinian corner of the Middle East. Hopefully, this is the case.