President Bush arrived in Israel on a Wednesday and left that Friday. At the end of his brief jaunt to solve the Israel/Palestine problem he predicted peace within the year. Superficially this seems to be another in a series of end-of-term attempts by U.S. presidents to find a solution to the perennial Middle East crisis. History may judge this attempt to be as earnest as those of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But is it likely that anything good will come of this trip?
The attempts of the past have familiar names: the Camp David Accords of 1978, the Oslo Accords of 1993, the Camp David Summit of 2000, and the Road Map for Peace of 2002. The Road Map was a product of the Bush administration and European nations. It was to implement a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine existing independently. But suicide bombings in Israel continued, Israeli settlements continued to be built in the West Bank and Gaza, and democratic elections had not been held by the Palestinian Authority.
After the death of PLO leader Yasser Arafat the Palestinian Authority scheduled legislative elections. This move toward democracy was widely hailed and international observers were present; they judged the elections to be fair. Unfortunately, from the point-of-view of the West, democracy did not produce the expected result. The moderate but corrupt Fatah party did not fare well. The militant Hamas party gained a majority in early 2006 and formed a government with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as Prime Minister.
At this point the U.S., Israel and Europe decided that democracy was not the primary goal of their policy. They cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority and imposed a boycott. Hamas agreed to join Fatah in a unity government. This government was short-lived. Conflict soon broke out between secular Fatah loyalists and the religiously militant Hamas supporters.
Alvaro de Soto, the U.N.’s Middle East envoy, was reported as saying “The U.S. clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas.” This effort was led by the neoconservative Elliot Abrams working under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The confrontation escalated for over 14 months. Then Hamas went all-out in June, 2007 and quickly swept Fatah fighters from Gaza. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency and established a Fatah led government in the West Bank. The U.S. and Israel have supported Abbas. Israel claims that Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and will not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas replies: which Israel? and with what borders? Israeli schoolbooks show all of Palestinian territory as Israel. The confrontation goes on.
At the urging of Secretary of State Rice, Bush has decided to restart peace talks. Some 50 nations were invited to the Annapolis conference in November. Specifically not invited: Hamas and Iran. This conference proved to be no more than a photo-op. Nothing changed. Working groups were not formed. Old arguments were rehashed. Palestinians want Palestinian East Jerusalem as the capital of their nation. Israel says all of Jerusalem will be the capital of their nation. Palestinians want the right to return to properties in Israel they were driven from. Israel insists that many of the 122 Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank must remain there when a Palestinian nation is founded.
On his jaunt Bush has spent more time raising fears of Iran than pressing hard for a treaty creating a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. Bush has not considered talking with one of the major parties is this drama – Hamas. Most or all observers feel this is unrealistic, if not a counterproductive way to go about diplomacy. It might be called Hail Mary diplomacy.
In the last 30 seconds of a football game the trailing team might be well justified in throwing a Hail Mary pass. But the U.S. is not a losing team and this is not the last moment of the diplomatic contest in the Middle East. Then why is George Bush throwing a diplomatic Hail Mary? He is in the last year of his presidency and certainly has a losing record in the Middle East. So it’s all about George Bush and his place in history. Should Bush’s concerns over his place in history be allowed to create further disarray in the region? The problems are nearly intractable. The Bush team has not made the long-term, intensive preparations necessary to address these problems realistically. The President has little chance of going out with glory in any case. This is not a “Nixon’s trip to China” opportunity. We would be best served if he stayed home and did not stir the pot of the Middle East.