Will Bush Get Engaged?

When it comes to the Middle East peace process, the Bush administration has held firm on its refusal to talk to its enemies. Now, though, in the waning days of office, engagement with radicals doesn’t look nearly as bad as it once did. And if it works, Bush would have Israel to thank.

David Silverman/Getty Images Fading into the background: The Bush administration is running out of time to change course in the Middle East

Like the president who leads it, the Bush administration has been known for holding fast to its views and seeing the world through an ideological lens. That world view explains in part why the administration often has refused to negotiate or even talk with what it considers to be some of the worlds most odious regimes. But, in its twilight, the Bush administration has shown hints of stepping back from its blanket refusal to engage some adversarial regimes and militant groups. The tactical shift, however sporadic, is no doubt a byproduct of the fact that there is now little time left for an administration hungry for foreign-policy victories.

But other factors may have influenced the administration as well. Among them, the advice from some veteran former Israeli security and diplomatic officials who have been making a steady pilgrimage to Washington in recent months to urge officials to reconsider the administrations ideological position of not engaging with hostile regimes and terrorist groups.

The irony, of course, is that it was Israeli officials who initially applauded the Bush administrations tough non-engagement policy in the early days of the Bush presidency. In a sharp break from the Clinton administration, President George W. Bushs foreign-policy team signaled in its opening months that it would dramatically reduce U.S. efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement until then Palestinian President Yasir Arafat was replaced. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used a January 2002 visit to the White House as an opportunity to declare that Arafat is not and never will be a partner. Bush, too, called at the United Nations in September 2003 for regime change in the Palestinian leadership and used the lack of an effective Palestinian leader as a justification for his more hands-off approach. Unlike the Clinton administration, which invited Arafat to the White House more than a dozen times, Bush never granted Arafat such a visit, and even after Arafats death, Washington took months to step up engagement with his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

Indeed, at least in the case of the Palestinian question, Bushs policy of non-engagement borrowed heavily from the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon. Although some U.S. allies tried to prod Washington to take a more nuanced approach, the Bush administration by and large found a receptive audience for it from Israeli officials. They got it from Sharon, says veteran Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, now a senior fellow at a Washington think tank. But remember, the whole Project for [the] New American Century crew had been arguing this for years. They took it from Sharon, but it was also in their circles.

But in the years since, amid Hamass surprise victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, Israels rising alarm over Irans nuclear program, and the growing strength of Hamas and Hezbollah, many former Israeli officials have come to see the U.S. position of refusing to engage with adversaries as detrimental to Israeli security interests. And as President Bush visits Israel this week for its 60th anniversary celebrations, his administrations policy of not talking with bad guys is coming under growing pressure from some veteran Israeli security officials and diplomats who favor a more pragmatic approach.

Although current Israeli political leaders appear to be in close step with the Bush administration, the countrys former security officials did not wait for Bushs trip to make their case. The impasse over Gaza and the peace feelers regarding Syria have drawn a number of veteran Israeli officials to Washington to urge the Bush administration to reconsider its approach. Among those who have recently traveled to Washington are a former director of the Mossad and a parade of former senior members of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Former Israeli foreign minister and Middle East peace negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami visited Washington in March to urge U.S. officials to save the Annapolis peace process and engage adversaries with whom Israel is unable to talk. We need you to do diplomacy, because the military option does not work, Ben-Ami said at a Washington dinner. Its the first time in history that my ally does not speak with our enemies. We need you to engage these parties.

Others are quick to note that the Bush administration has been capable of negotiating with its enemies when its necessary. The [Bush] administration has been flexible when it came to Iraq, says former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy, an advocate of engaging Hamas. When [the administration] ascertained that the only viable option to turn events in Iraq at least partially, if not entirely, in a different direction they contacted people close to Saddam Hussein who had been carrying out operations against American servicemen and causing American deaths, and they made a deal with them. Why do the rules of Iraq not apply here?

Its a fair question, and other former Israeli officials are pressing further, arguing that Israel should pursue peace with Syria, its last bordering state with which it does not have a peace agreement. Among officials urging Washington to back diplomacy with Syria are former Israeli foreign ministry and intelligence official David Kimche and former Israeli foreign ministry director-general Alon Liel, who had been pursuing a track-two dialogue mediated by Turkey until Washington pressured the Israeli government to cut off the channel. One of the reasons that I believe we should explore the possibility of speaking with Syria on an official level is that this body needs oxygen, Liel told me in February in Washington. We need a real process, and the Syrians are open to do it.

Of course, the ultimate rejection of Washingtons non-engagement policy would be dialogue with Iran. Few Israeli officials express great optimism that such talks would go far in persuading Iran to curtail its nuclear program, but that isnt preventing some Israeli experts from quietly making the case. Both the United States and Iran have made each other giant enemies, and it will be very difficult for Iranians to retreat from anti-American rhetoric, says Tel Aviv Universitys David Menashri, one of Israels foremost Iran experts. But dialogue is a prerequisite for serious pressure. Iran should know that America is sincere in offering dialogue.

Though the Bush administration seems unlikely to do a Nixon goes to China with Iran at this late date, in some isolated cases it does appear to be at least flirting with a different approach. Recent weeks have seen numerous reports of indirect proximity talks and back-channel diplomacy between Israel and Syria, on the one hand, and between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas, on the other. In both cases, Washingtons role is curious, officially condemning calls for any sort of dialogue with Hamas while at the same time, seemingly tacitly endorsing Egypts role as a cease-fire broker between Israel and Hamas.

Then two weeks ago, after numerous regional press reports of Syria-Israel peace feelers, came news that Washington has withdrawn a long-held veto on Israeli talks with Syrias Bashar al-Assad regime, which are being mediated by Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed as much in a recent interview with an Arabic-language paper. We do not wish to stand in the way of any attempt to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors, including Syria, Rice told Asharq al-Awsat last week. If the two sides wished to exert an effort for peace, the United States would give its blessing and back these efforts. Until recently, the Bush administration had reportedly objected to such talks with Syria.

Such hints aside, most Israeli experts in favor of engagement remain pessimistic that the Bush administration will change course in any meaningful sense, particularly when it comes to Hamas and Iran. I dont see it, says Halevy. Just a few days ago, Rice made strong statements that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Only time will tell if the Bush administration is either interested or capable of pivoting so late in the game. But what is undeniably true is that there isnt much time. Already, like other regional actors, this handful of Israeli security experts is anticipating new leadership in Washington. They have already begun to shift their campaign from the outgoing administration to its successor. As that happens, the post-Bush era has, in some sense, unofficially begun.