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Bush in Mideast facing repudiation

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President Bush, center, is greeted on his January 2008  visit to Israel by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, and President Shimon Peres. (Chris Greenberg/ White House)

President Bush, center, is greeted on his January 2008 visit to Israel by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, and President Shimon Peres. (Chris Greenberg/ White House)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Bush is about to preside over a series of events that mark the unraveling of the core principles of his Middle East peace policy.

His trip this week to the Middle East – what was to have been Bush’s triumphal coronation as Israel’s best friend ever in the White House – is becoming, at least in policy terms, a repudiation of his three nos: no to negotiating with terrorists, no to negotiating with their state sponsors, and no to getting ahead of the Israelis and Palestinians in peace talks.

Egypt is negotiating with Hamas at Israel’s behest, Israel is itching to negotiate with Syria and U.S. allies in the Middle East are pressing for Bush to impose a solution to breaking through the current Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

Bush is seeing his vision of securing the outline of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office in January slowly dissipate.

“The vision that Bush has set for Israeli-Palestinian peace is clearly failing,” Haim Malka, the deputy director of the Middle East program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told JTA. “The only significant negotiations going on are those being brokered by the Egyptians for a temporary truce in Gaza with Hamas.”

On May 2, the Bush administration formally repudiated its longstanding policy of refusing to countenance negotiations with Hamas when it signed on to a statement by the Quartet – the grouping of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations that guides the Mideast peace process – that approved of Egypt’s outreach to Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Should Egypt secure a truce, thereby ending Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel’s south and retaliatory raids by Israel in Gaza, it would eclipse U.S.-sponsored talks between Israel and Palestinians, which themselves are on the verge of collapse.

“The domestic situation of the major players makes it difficult,” said Allen Keiswetter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs who now is a scholar at the Middle East Institute think tank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is battling criminal allegations that could fell his government, Bush is suffering from record-low approval ratings and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can’t control Hamas.

What’s more, Keiswetter said, “Bush’s own lame-duck status and the general lack of regard for his diplomacy has undermined his own influence.”

That doesn’t mean Bush will not be feted in Israel, where he will address the Knesset and host a reception at the Israel Museum.

Many Israelis are grateful for a U.S. president who set precedent by recognizing some West Bank Jewish settlement blocs as inevitably Israeli, who repudiated Palestinians’ right of return to Israel and who refused to restrict Israel during its 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In return for this loyalty, the Israeli political leadership may be the last redoubt of support for Bush’s Iraq war.

“I think Bush did something which is very courageous,” Israeli President Shimon Peres told Newsweek in an interview on the eve of Bush’s visit. “That was to topple down Saddam Hussein.

“Imagine today that we would have in the Middle East both Ahmadinejad and Saddam Hussein,” he said, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who regularly speaks of Israel’s demise.

Bush, who is leaving Tuesday for Israel, is bringing with him more than 80 Jewish guests, the bulk of whom were major contributors to his campaigns.

Despite Bush’s record on Israel, the Jewish state already is positioning itself for the post-Bush era.

Israel is actively exploring peace overtures from Damascus after years of restraint due to the Bush administration’s policy of isolating Syria for its meddling in Lebanon.

“The relations between us and Syria have to be re-examined, the possibility of making peace,” Olmert told Newsweek. “I don’t mind that President Assad made an announcement that there will be negotiations, but the actual negotiations ought to be discussed quietly. In principle, we are ready for it if they are.”

Olmert’s comments on Syria were all the more remarkable for their timing: They came just as an armed insurgency by Hezbollah, which is closely allied with Syria and Iran, edged closer to toppling Lebanon’s government and unraveling one of the signal successes of the Bush administration’s policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

Olmert added in the Newsweek interview that Israel is “very unhappy” with Syria’s involvement in Lebanese affairs and its continued links with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Israel offered an even more telling rebuke to Bush’s Middle East policies with its refusal to attend a summit next week in Sharm el-Sheik. Bush will meet in the Egyptian resort with Abbas and the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, but without Olmert the summit will lack substance.

With no peace deal on the horizon, Saudi Arabia is leading regional players in pushing to get the backing of major world powers – including the next U.S. administration – to impose a modus vivendi between the Israelis and the Palestinians, according to Steve Clemons, who directs the American Strategy Program and the New America Foundation.

Clemons, who has spoken with Saudi officials about their plans, said the Saudis and others want a more evenhanded U.S. approach to the region to calm regional tensions and persuade Arab states to side with the West against Iran in its plans for regional hegemony.

 

In the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, the Saudis may push for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas to be followed by development assistance for the Palestinians. The idea is to reduce the level of Arab anger surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and thereby thwart Iran’s efforts to use that anger to foment unrest in the region.

Many Arab leaders feel more threatened by Iranian power than by Israeli power.

“Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are genuinely worried about Iran’s capacity for making mischief in the region,” Clemons said.

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