January 10, 2008
Low hopes for Bush in Israel
As Bush kicks off what will be a series of Farewell World Tours in this lame duck year, the prospects for Middle East peace are at a two-decade low, and his travels do not seem designed to change that. What Bush launched at Annapolis just after Thanksgiving has steadily deteriorated, with little intervention by his administration.
He has already abandoned his goal of Palestinian statehood by the end of this year.
In National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley's pretrip briefing, that objective wasn't even mentioned; instead he spoke of Bush going to "discuss," "encourage," "reaffirm," "listen" and "show his commitment."
Bush's agenda is now defining "what a state would look like."
"The best we can hope for in the region this year is that it won't get any worse," said a former Bush advisor, who declined to speak on the record. "Bush is the weakest president since Richard Nixon went to the Middle East in 1974 to try to revive his standing at home, so why would any Middle East leader take risks or invest in his policies?"
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose approval rating is so low he makes Bush look like a rock star, will fawn all over his "great friend," and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be very appreciative, but other leaders in the region have little positive to say about Bush's foreign policy prowess. That should make him feel right at home.
In pre-trip interviews the president said he will "talk about" freezing settlement construction and dismantling outposts, but there has been no indication that Olmert will face heavy pressure to comply. Instead, the PM is once again dancing around the issue and promising to remove the unauthorized settlements "expeditiously" -- right after Bush leaves town. If Bush allows Olmert to brush him off once again on this issue and do nothing, the president won't have the credibility to make demands on the Arabs.
Bush remains very popular in Israel, and no one seems to love him more than Olmert. During my visits there, Israelis tell me Bush is so popular "Because he leaves us alone."
Despite that popularity, many on the American and Israeli right claim that is changing. Some blame the change on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling her a special pleader for the Palestinian cause. Two right-wing Israeli parties have threatened to pull out of the government if Olmert negotiates the status of Jerusalem.
That may not be so bad, said Yossi Alpher, former head of Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, because "Since Sept. 11, most of what Bush has touched in the Middle East has gone sour."
The United States still hasn't established its monitoring program to oversee adherence by the two sides to their commitments, and only this week did the Israelis and Palestinians get around to naming working groups to deal with the basic issues.
All three leaders are politically weak lame ducks. Abbas and Bush are not running again, and Olmert, who wants to run, could be out of office earlier than the others if the Winograd Commission report on his conduct of the Second Lebanon War, due late this month, is as damning as some expect.
The best thing Bush could do to advance the peace process should begin erev Shabbat when he leaves Israel for the Gulf; it involves getting the Arab and Gulf states to start playing a constructive role in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and in the broader effort to contain a dangerous Iran.
Bush was very encouraged by the appearance of Arab leaders at Annapolis, but their performance since then has been a major disappointment.
Hamas is a major obstacle to Israeli and Palestinian aspirations for peace, yet the Saudis and Egyptians are doing more to boost the extremist group's spoiler role than to advance the cause of reconciliation.
He needs to persuade the Saudis and other Gulf states, wallowing in gushers of cash thanks to $100 a barrel oil, to do more to help Abbas' government financially and politically and stop promoting Hamas' interest by pressing for a unity government. Peace is not possible if one of the parties to the negotiations wants to destroy the other.
The Saudis also need to actively encourage realistic progress on Arab-Israeli reconciliation. Their insistence that all Arab demands be met before discussing normalization is a disincentive for Israel to make the steps they want to see.
Bush will also have to press the Egyptians to honor their commitments to act more decisively to close down the tunnels being used to smuggle arms, money and fighters between Gaza and the Sinai.
The easiest thing any Arab leader can do to advance the cause of peace is stopping the anti-Israeli incitement in their state-dominated media and begin talking to their people about peace.
That is, if they are as serious about peace as they say. That's another place for low expectations.
So nothing can be expected from this trip. Bush is expected to return in May for Israel's 60th birthday celebration. Maybe then?
Douglas M. Bloomfield is Jewish World Review's Washington correspondent.
And now for something completely different: Al Jazeera TV posted this version of events