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Bush’s Mideast trip expected to be long on pageantry, short on substance

Israeli President Shimon Peres, center, stands with President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during a welcoming ceremony near Tel Aviv.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, center, stands with President Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during a welcoming ceremony near Tel Aviv.

Presidential trips abroad are always part symbolic, part ceremonial and part substantive. President Bush’s five-day trip to the Middle East, which begins today in Israel, will be short on substance, most analysts agree, with low expectations for much progress in the peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“In some ways, this is the roadshow cast of ‘Waiting for Godot,’ ” Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg. “He said the trip would ‘basically set a marker while everybody waits for the next president.’ ”

The president’s visit is complicated by a number of factors, Stolberg reports:

“Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is embroiled in a criminal investigation that threatens his job. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, left Washington disappointed after a recent meeting with Mr. Bush. Although the peace talks continue, the two sides are far apart on the core issues that divide them, and the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, has said progress is ‘more halting’ than Mr. Bush would like. The talks are so tenuous that even Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s ever-optimistic national security adviser, conceded there was little reason for the three leaders to get together. Mr. Bush will meet Mr. Olmert in Jerusalem and see Mr. Abbas separately in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.”

Hezbollah gains in Beirut

In addition, violence continues between Hamas and the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah has taken over part of Beirut, further weakening the Lebanese government.

“The pageantry of President Bush’s trip to the Middle East this week is sure to be impressive,” reports Peter Grier of The Christian Science Monitor. “On May 15, he’ll tour the ancient fortress of Masada, then commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel with an address to the Knesset. The next day he’ll travel to Saudi Arabia to help mark the 75th anniversary of formal US-Saudi relations.” He’s also expected to ask the Saudis to increase oil production.

The president will address leaders at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheik and meet personally with key Mideast leaders while there.

“The substance of the journey, however, is unlikely to live up to the White House’s once-high expectations,” The Monitor’s Grier says. “Last year, the White House tried to jump-start the Middle East peace process by hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders at an Annapolis, Md., conference. Today, there seems little chance that Bush will help deliver an outline for real Israeli-Palestinian peace before he leaves office.”

A real Olmert-Abbas relationship

But behind the scenes some interesting developments are taking place, according to former peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, who was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman for the Council on Foreign Relations.

“For the first time in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, you have a real relationship between an elected Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and an elected Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas,” Miller said.

“Weak and constrained though they both may be, the two of them have been having, even before Annapolis, a set of very quiet but fairly regular discussions on the core issues: Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and security. … Those discussions could in the course of the next six months or so lead to an agreement on a text, on a piece of paper — not a peace treaty as the president has said several months ago, not a detailed framework agreement — but perhaps a declaration of principles on these four issues … that will go further than any Israeli- and Palestinian-elected politicians have ever gone before. That is the first reality.

“The second is a set of very complicated, tricky negotiations — three-way negotiations that the Egyptians are brokering between Israel on one hand and Hamas on the other. … If these two things come to fruition you just might see by the end of the year the administration passing on to its Republican or Democratic successor something that looks pretty good, not a Palestinian state, not a peace treaty, but something that the next Republican or Democratic president won’t be able to walk away from.”

But other observers aren’t convinced the administration, which critics have said had a hands-off attitude towards the peace process for much of the past seven years, will have much success.

A risk of damaging Bush’s prestige

“If the president brings the prestige and the weight of his office to the region, and leaves the parties without having moved the process forward, he only damages his prestige,” argues Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel. “He devalues his currency. And that’s what it looks like we’re going to see.”

Joharah Baker writes in the Daily Star of Beirut that to “an outsider, the (Bush) plan has the potential to be optimistically real. Palestinians must end violence and Israel must freeze settlement activity and commit to the establishment of a two-state solution. …

“However, to those of us on the inside, the road map was always bound to lead down the proverbial drain like all the incomprehensive and insufficient agreements before it. The reason is plain and simple, but one which eludes the major ‘peacemakers’ in this conflict. As long as the road map, or any other agreement … does not unequivocally address and demand an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, nothing will ever come good.”

While the outlines of a peace settlement have been discussed for years and favored by many on both sides of the conflict, the problem is in the details and, more importantly, in the emotional commitment each side has to its position.

Steps Bush could take
On the one hand, the Jerusalem Post argues: “No one can blame President Bush for not having ended the Arab-Israel conflict. And yet there are steps he could take to leave our region better off than when he took office. He could unambiguously tell the relative moderates among the Palestinians that their demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines is unrealistic; that their claims to a ‘right of return,’ which would spell the demographic destruction of Israel, should be abandoned; and he could press Abbas to use his Western-trained and -equipped forces to tackle the terrorist infrastructure right under his nose. Finally, Bush could point out that no progress will be made until Abbas prepares his people for genuine reconciliation with Israel.”

On the other hand, Daniel Kattab, a Palestinian, writes in The Washington Post: “What Palestinians want is for Israel to admit its historic and moral role in creating the refugee problem and its moral responsibility to them. Such an admission by a courageous Israeli leader would satisfy, and neutralize, many Palestinians who hold their keys and demand the literal right of return. As part of a bilateral agreement, surely Israel would allow divided Palestinian families to reunite with relatives who stayed in what became Israel after 1948.”

Macalester classics professor Andrew Overman, who counts both Palestinians and Israelis among his friends, is in northern Israel this week working on his archeological dig. He emailed this reaction to the president’s visit:

“The good news here today is most Israelis and Palestinians have found something they agree on — that is that President Bush’s visit here is a non-event. The bad news is they are right. The reality is that virtually no one here believes in the notion of the road map any longer. There is no substantive engagement from the U.S., the European Union or the United Nations. Prime Minister Olmert has been engaged in serious discussions with Syria and conservatives here are truly concerned that he may find a way to return the Golan Heights to them. But he is making little show that he is serious about moving toward a solution with the Palestinians. He has met regularly with Abbas, but still Israel is expanding West Bank settlements at an alarming rate. The Palestinian government is preoccupied with the very real prospect of civil war. So, these days do not look good for the prospects for peace here. However, in the often upside down world of the Middle East, this may prove to be just what is needed.”

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College. 

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