Pres­id­ent Bush meets with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ar­i­el Shar­on in the Oval Of­fice of the White House. (Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

How do peace processes fail? In his new book, Indecision Points: George W. Bush and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, December 2014), Daniel E. Zoughbie uses the former president's unsuccessful attempts to end the violence in the region as a case study. Zoughbie is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California (Berkeley), but he does not write this account from an ivory tower. Through interviews with more than 40 American and foreign dignitaries and thought leaders—including former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan—Zoughbie meticulously maps the White House's changing approaches toward Israel and the Palestinian territories, while examining the political crosswinds that buffeted President Bush. In the process, he finds a pattern of mistakes that future administrations would do well to avoid.

The fundamental flaw in the Bush peace initiatives, Zoughbie argues, was inconsistency. Over time, Bush went from a hands-off stance—which was a major change from the feverish peace efforts of President Clinton's second term—to what Zoughbie calls the "sequence" approach, which demanded that Palestinians meet preconditions before Israel would be expected to concede any ground. Then the strategy shifted again, from sequentialism to "parallelism," which required concurrent compromises from both sides. These vacillations continued until the end of Bush's presidency.

At first, Bush put little focus on the conflict. But Rice tells the author that Bush's opinion of Yasir Arafat quickly soured in 2001, as the Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman behaved more belligerently; that, she says, laid the groundwork for the pro-Israel policy that emerged after the 9/11 attacks changed the president's worldview. (Bush gives his own account of the process in his autobiography, Decision Points, the title of which apparently inspired Zoughbie's.) Along with Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories would become part of the "freedom agenda," designed to bring peace to the wider Middle East through a democratic domino effect. Bush would now pursue a sequential approach: In a Rose Garden speech in June 2002, the president demanded that Arafat resign, and that the Palestinian territories hold elections; until that happened, he declared, Israel should concede nothing.

Zoughbie argues that this declaration doomed Bush's efforts when he later advocated parallel reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The much-touted "Road Map for Peace," finalized in April 2003, called on all involved parties—including the United States, Russia, and other peace brokers—to make certain concessions simultaneously over the following few years. Palestinians would curb terrorism, and Israelis would dismantle settlements in the West Bank. But Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert pushed back, constantly citing Bush's 2002 speech as justification for delaying the Road Map's implementation; the Palestinians, they insisted, had to first do what Bush had said they must. America lost its credibility as a moderator.

Zoughbie characterizes Bush's second-term peace efforts as a series of miscalculations and missed opportunities. The president, he writes, "continued to vacillate back and forth between the Rose Garden vision of sequence and the Road Map's vision of parallelism." Because Bush "confused" the two approaches, Zoughbie says, and "failed to come down on one side or the other, the situation was left in utter disarray."

Even without the strategic confusion, however, Bush's bids for peace faced considerable obstacles. Arafat and Sharon shared an undying mutual distrust. Meanwhile, at home, conservatives were deeply divided. There were realists like Powell; neoconservatives like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; and "theoconservatives" who demanded complete Israeli ownership of the land in order to fulfill biblical prophecy. Congress, for its part, was pressuring Bush to take more conservative, or pro-Israel, positions.

Bush's defenders can, and will, assert that peace was out of reach until the polarizing Arafat and Sharon left the stage. Whatever the truth of that, this study of the Bush administration's eight years of futility demonstrates how shifts in American strategy can derail any chance of progress in the Middle East. President Obama's successor will, accordingly, have to take the current policy (which is akin to parallelism) into account as he or she decides on a strategic approach to a conflict that often seems unresolvable.