It’s easy to forget, but the United States has a pressing year-end deadline to meet in Israel-Palestine as well as in Iraq. At Annapolis in November 2007, President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged to “make every effort” to hammer out a comprehensive peace accord “before the end of 2008.” For Bush, the joint statement underlined a previous vow, uttered soon after the 2004 election, “to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States” on creating a Palestinian state. And to accomplish that mission, recall, he had promised to “ride herd” on Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) at the signing of the 2003 “road map” that was to have produced a sovereign Palestinian entity by 2005.
The perpetual expressions of urgency are disingenuous, at best. Leave aside that Bush has ordered no intensive US diplomatic effort on the Israeli-Palestinian front and that he has, from long before Hamas took over parts of the PA, insisted upon the escape clause that “a Palestinian state will never be created by terror.” As the Bush administration opposes reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas, it is clear that the goal of peace is, shall we say, aspirational. And the towering concrete wall rising in the West Bank, the panoptic terminal replacing the main checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the light rail tracks being laid by Israel on the road to Qalandiya—all these rapidly emerging “facts on the ground” bespeak the real task at hand. While Israel and the US defer and defer negotiations with the PA over the core issues of the conflict, whether on the pretext of Palestinian violence or the fairer, but still self-serving premise of PA disunity, Israel fast-tracks the consolidation of the settlement project in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This project must proceed as quickly as possible before a change in circumstances intervenes.
For even powers as heedless as the Israeli right and the Bush administration run up against time horizons they have not set themselves. Corruption scandals, UN mandate expiration dates, presidential term limits and the actions of the occupied build willingness to accept outcomes that, in the minds of the powerful, were once unthinkable. Policies of willful delay give way to bursts of acceleration: How else to explain Bush’s mid-August embrace of a 2011 departure date for US combat troops stationed in Iraq? The date is conditional, and so not the precise timetable for which anti-occupation Iraqis and Americans have clamored, but it is an unmistakable defeat of Bush administration fiat.
There is another type of acceleration available to the powerful, of course, and that is escalation. The Bush administration’s stark failure in Iraq has sidelined most of those demanding a reprise in Iran. Given the recurrence of talk that “time is running out” to halt Iran’s nuclear research program, however, it would be unwise to discount the possibility that the White House (with or without Israeli assistance) has one more escalation in store. Benny Morris’ column in the July 18 New York Times was a warning that, for a certain type of militarist, the time may yet be right for an Israeli-US strike on Iran. The window would open between November 5, when the next president is elected, and January 19, 2009, when he takes office. If Democrat Barack Obama wins, the Morris school believes, the Bush-Israeli right axis will judge him unequal to the historic task of bombing Iran—and scramble the warplanes themselves.
Time has run out on the broader Bush vision for a strategic realignment in the region. Iraq will not be a launching pad for further conquests; Iran is emboldened; the Arab Gulf states are buying greater shares of the US economy with the hefty profits fattened by Bush’s wars. Yet, as the case of Palestine above all makes clear, Bush’s failures do not automatically put time on justice’s side. It is worth pondering, indeed, that the administration’s achievement has been to reduce its political opponents to waiting, bated breath alternating with boredom, for the Bush years to be over.