This was not inevitable: as an election year approaches and the US sinks deeper into the Iraqi morass, Washington is simply not prepared to give high enough priority to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
There are multiple dimensions to this failure. One is the shallowness of US intervention. Looking back over the past three decades, it is apparent that American involvement in the Arab-Israel conflict was successful when it manifested itself in the prolonged presence in the region–over weeks and even months of shuttling back and forth and sitting exclusively with the parties–of a strong US secretary of state (Henry Kissinger in 1974-75, James Baker in 1990-91) with a clear presidential mandate, or of a president himself (Jimmy Carter in 1978-79, nailing down the Israel-Egypt peace treaty).
True, President Clinton failed in a similar venture in 2000, and it was his abortive high profile involvement at Camp David and thereafter that deterred President George W. Bush and his aides and influenced the current administration’s initial "hands off" policy. But once Bush did commit–presumably assessing that between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) he had enough good leadership material to work with–his only possible route to success was to follow in the footsteps of presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush senior, all Republicans, and empower a very senior American official to "camp out" in Jerusalem and Ramallah until the job was done. He refused.
One reason is the impending presidential elections of November 2004. Bush needs Jewish and right wing Christian votes and funds, and the lobbying organizations of those communities have signaled him to lay off and not pressure Sharon on key issues like settlements. Yet even this does not explain why he did not until recently attempt to galvanize greater pressure on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. His negligence on both issues–and his alternative preoccupation with prisoner release and the "wall", both non-roadmap issues–appear to reflect bad advice at the strategic level concerning the necessary priorities. It also bespeaks a lack of presidential understanding of the damage rendered to US interests in the region by the prolongation of this conflict and by the expansion of settlements–dynamics that ultimately are liable to destroy Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.
This brings us to the real current US preoccupation in the Middle East: Iraq and its dilemmas. The elimination of the Saddam Hussein regime was supposed to usher in a new era of democracy and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) reduction in the region, and to facilitate Arab-Israel peace. Thus far it has failed spectacularly. No less distressing is the US failure in intelligence gathering and analysis and post-war planning that lies behind the present Iraq fiasco. These setbacks damage American prestige and deterrence, hence American peacemaking capabilities, in the region.
They also determine Washington’s order of priorities for the coming months. With the US losing more than a soldier a day in Iraq, searching desperately for international partners to shoulder part of the burden, and seemingly incapable of stanching the growing violence, the choice is clear. In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the administration will avoid high profile involvement and spin or cut its losses while empowering Sharon to continue and even escalate his war on terrorism–all in order to minimize public pressure from critical constituencies.
At the same time, the administration will go all out to show some results in Iraq, where it cannot back out without risking a severe electoral setback in 2004, and where the fallout from failure is strategically more critical, insofar as it could negatively influence global terrorism, WMD proliferation, vital energy resources and friendly regional regimes, including Israel. Nor have we even mentioned the rest of the "axis of evil": the administration has to be ready to deal with escalating nuclear challenges from Iran and North Korea, possibly in the coming months.
The financial side of this choice is staggering: the US is already spending in one month in Iraq alone considerably more than it spends in aid to Israel and the PA in a year; it is spending annually in Iraq about twice the sum that President Clinton contemplated spending on Israeli-Palestinian peace (refugee resettlement, desalination, additional security for Israel) over ten years.
Given these American priorities, it is hard to understand the pronouncement of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Yaalon that "everything [concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] depends on Bush." At the daily, tactical level of financial and diplomatic pressures this might be true. But at the broader strategic level very little currently depends on Bush, because Bush does not really intend to risk very much here.