JERUSALEM (JTA) – After major speeches in the Knesset and at Sharm el-Sheik, President Bush left the Middle East Sunday with little to show for advancing America’s strategic goals in the region.
Israeli and Arab pundits alike pointed to a large gap between America’s words and deeds, which they say is exacerbating a growing U.S. credibility problem.
During Bush’s visit, which was timed for Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, the president failed to strengthen or reassure the moderate Arab alliance against Iran, made little headway on Israeli-Palestinian peace and failed to offer an American plan for countering Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon.
By expressing intensely warm support for Israel and lecturing the Arabs on democracy, Bush antagonized Arab moderates. And by hedging on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, he left Israelis wondering about American resolve.
Indeed, if Bush’s main policy goal is to curb Iranian power, it seems to be eluding him. The regional consensus, from Doha to Jerusalem to Cairo, is that Iran’s influence is spreading.
“If we look at the situation Bush leaves behind him, the dangers and the threats and the problems are far greater than they were when he entered office,” said Eitan Gilboa, an expert on U.S. policy at the Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies.
The latest area to highlight the shortcomings of U.S. policy in the Middle East is Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah has virtually seized control of the country.
After it was instrumental in helping to force the Syrians out of Lebanon in 2005, the Bush administration had hoped a free Lebanon would become a model for the White House’s regional democratization policy. Bush often has expressed support for the moderate, pro-Western Beirut government of the Sunni prime minister, Fuad Siniora.
But Hezbollah, prompted by Iran, was able to impose a set of conditions on the moderates that left the pro-Iranian Shiite militia in virtual control of the country earlier this month. And America did nothing to stop this dramatic spread of Iranian influence.
Israeli analysts highlighted the discrepancy between Bush’s contention in the Knesset that Israel in the fight against terror will have “300 million Americans” behind it and Washington’s inaction in the face of the Shiite takeover of Lebanon.
“In other times, the U.S. would have sent in gunboats and bombed Hezbollah positions from the sea,” veteran political analyst Nahum Barnea wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “Not today. America is tired, neutered and torn.”
In Barnea’s view, the message this sends to Iran is that it can go ahead with its hegemonic ambitions and nuclear weapons program without fear.
“Deterrence is gone,” he wrote. “This is bad for the moderates – Egypt, Jordan and especially Israel.”
Gilboa sees a parallel between Lebanon and Iraq. He maintains the United States in Iraq had hoped that toppling Saddam Hussein would deter Iran. But for all his cruelty, Saddam helped contain Iran. Taking him out enabled Iran to emerge much stronger and bolder.
“The same kind of thing happened in Lebanon,” Gilboa told JTA. “They thought that after forcing the Syrians out they would get a more democratic Lebanon. But the opposite occurred. Forcing Syria out left Iran and Hezbollah much stronger.”
Israeli officials are still hopeful that the United States will play a leading role in preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons. They say they showed Bush new intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and came away with the impression that the U.S. leader means business on Iran.
But given the short time left in the Bush presidency, the unpopularity in the United States of waging war with Iran and Bush’s own tentative reaction to questions last week about containing Iran’s assumed nuclear ambitions, the pundits are skeptical.
“I think what definitely will be done is a structure on how to deal with this, to try to resolve it diplomatically,” Bush offered last week. He followed those remarks with a speech in the Knesset declaring that for the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.
Israeli analysts interpreted this to mean that Bush would leave the Iranian problem to his successor and the international community.
The perceived weakness of U.S. policy on Iran has led to a degree of ambivalence among moderate Arabs, especially in the Persian Gulf, where Iran is a threatening presence to nearby Arab states.
“They lack confidence in America’s ability to deal with Iran, and they fear that under a new administration the U.S. will withdraw from Iraq and leave them facing Iran on their own,” Gilboa said. “So they are keeping ties with Tehran open, which makes it much more difficult for the U.S. to isolate Iran.
Bush on his visit also made no tangible progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, which is supposed to help unify Arab moderates.
After a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Bush said Abbas was “absolutely committed” to reaching a peace deal by the end of the year.
“It breaks my heart to see the vast potential of the Palestinian people really wasted,” Bush declared. “They’re good, smart, capable people that when given a chance will build a thriving homeland.”
But Palestinians pointed to discrepancies between word and deed, complaining that Bush is not doing anything substantial to bring a homeland for them. As examples, Palestinians point out that Bush has not appointed a special Middle East envoy or presented U.S. bridging proposals to resolve differences between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Moreover, Bush’s remarks in Sharm el-Sheik on the need for stronger democracy in the Middle East did not help unify the moderate camp. They also were seen as a pointed barb against his Egyptian hosts.
“Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail,” Bush said.
The president’s strong words of support for Israel in his Knesset speech angered the Palestinians, with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat labeling the address “a missed opportunity.”
“Bush should have told the Israelis that no people can be free at the expense of another,” he said.
For its part, the Israeli administration was pleased by Bush’s warm words on the occasion of its 60th anniversary and his unqualified commitment to its survival.
But many Israelis, including some left-wing politicians and commentators, complained about Bush’s failure to pressure the parties to do more to achieve his vision of a two-state solution.
They argue that a more nuanced U.S. role, which pressures Israel as well as the Palestinians, might better serve Israeli interests and those of the Middle East as a whole.