Bush in the Middle East

2008-01-14 00:00

“Let’s not raise our expectations too high. We are talking about weak leaders on both sides, leaders who can barely stand on their own two feet … It seems fair to say that no great miracle will happen here.” So wrote Israeli journalist Yoel Marcus in Ha’aretz on the eve of President George W. Bush’s visit to Israel that ended on Friday. The two weak leaders he was talking about were Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, but it applies equally to Bush himself.

The most positive thing that can be said about Bush’s whirlwind seven-day tour of the Middle East (Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, plus perhaps a surprise stop in Iraq) is that it probably won’t make matters worse. On the other hand, that’s mainly because they are so bad already that it would take real creativity to make them worse.

The spin machines are spinning and optimistic forecasts are being made for the outcome of this Bush administration initiative, which seeks to create a legacy of success in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement after failure on almost every other front. (Please don’t mention Camp David, Bill Clinton’s similar failed bid for a legacy in the last year of his eight-year tenancy at the White House. It annoys them.) But Clinton was operating in a far more promising environment than Bush is, for reasons that are not entirely Bush’s fault.

Back in the Clinton era (1993-2001), there was still reason to hope that there might actually be a “two-state solution” that saw an independent Palestinian state co-exist peacefully with Israel on the territory of the former British mandate of Palestine. The Oslo accords of 1993 had drawn up a plan intended to lead to such a goal through phased negotiations and concessions and hard-line opponents of a compromise peace on both sides worried that the deal might actually be made. But thanks in large part to their obstructionism, it never happened

The change of government in Israel in mid-1999 created a slim chance of reviving the Oslo plan, although Palestinian disillusionment with the project was already pretty deep. The Clinton administration held the Camp David talks in July, 2000, in the desperate hope that last-minute success could be snatched from the jaws of failure, but it didn’t happen. By 2001, when Bush took office in the

United States, the second “intifada” (Palestinian uprising) was well under way.

Since then things have gone from bad to worse. Israelis have despaired of a negotiated peace and shifted towards unilateral measures like the wall that wends its way through the West Bank, separating the Israeli settlements from the Palestinian hinterland.

For many Palestinians, the death of Arafat in 2004 drained the last credibility from the two-state solution and the star of the hard-liners has risen there too. It culminated, last summer, in Hamas’s armed seizure of control in the Gaza Strip, which effectively divides the Palestinian Authority in two.

Little of this is President Bush’s fault and it probably wouldn’t have happened very differently if he had been hyper-active rather than comatose in his pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. He has done great damage further east with his invasion of Iraq and the Arab world will be dealing with the Islamist radicals whose cause he has so greatly empowered for a long time to come, but the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” was already a train wreck before Bush set foot in the White House.

Another Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, correctly judged the prospects of the current initiative when it wrote: “Once again Israelis who oppose territorial concessions can rest quiet in the knowledge that Arab leaders look set to doom the peace process to failure by waiting for someone else to move it forward.”

An Arab newspaper might write with equal justice that Palestinians who oppose territorial concessions can rest quiet in the knowledge that the Israeli government would promptly collapse if Olmert proposed any steps radical enough to revive Palestinian faith in the possibility of a negotiated peace.

It’s over and the local leaders are just acting out their allotted roles in the charade to keep Washington happy. President Bush will have to seek his legacy elsewhere.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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