Mr. Bush in the Middle East

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

AYEAR AGO, the Bush administration introduced a new policy in the Middle East aimed at aligning "moderate" Arab states against Iran while simultaneously promoting the revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As President Bush begins a tour of the region today, both ends of that strategy are in danger of unraveling. Never entirely in sync with the administration's concept of isolating Tehran, Arab states have been given further second thoughts by the recently released National Intelligence Estimate, which reported that Iran had suspended work on a nuclear bomb. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was recently invited to a meeting of the Gulf Arab alliance meant to contain his regional ambitions.

The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that Mr. Bush inaugurated in Annapolis in November have, meanwhile, sunk into the quicksand that has swallowed most previous "peace processes" -- a sticky mix of ruthless negotiating tactics, the failure to carry out confidence-building measures and provocations from hard-liners. Most of the news from the region in the days before Mr. Bush's visit has been about violence: Katyusha rockets launched at Israel from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon; raids and airstrikes by Israel; and an apparent attempt by Iranian patrol boats to provoke a confrontation with U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Bush won't abandon his regional strategy: He made clear before leaving Washington that he intended to use the trip to push Israeli-Arab talks forward and bolster the would-be alliance against Iran. One way to advance both goals may be to press Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem today to fulfill his promise in Annapolis to take the opening steps in the U.S.-sponsored Middle East road map, which include dismantling dozens of illegal West Bank settlements. Both Mr. Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Mr. Bush is due to meet tomorrow, could use a presidential shove toward the serious bargaining on "core issues" they promised in Annapolis and again yesterday.

The patrol boat incident was part of a confusing mix of signals from Iran, where Mr. Ahmadinejad's hard-line position may be weakening even as Iranian-sponsored violence against American forces in Iraq has diminished. Mr. Bush's confrontational regional strategy may make it difficult to exploit these conditions. That's one reason the president would be better off to return to the themes of Middle East policy he pursued before last year: the stabilization of Iraq and the promotion of democratic reforms. The focus on Iran and the peace process has stripped energy and attention from these causes; Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been allowed to continue boycotting the Iraqi government and jailing their own proponents of liberalization. Iraq's own political leaders still dither on desperately needed political accords. There is speculation that Mr. Bush will make a surprise stop in Baghdad; whether or not he does, the stabilization of Iraq should be his top Middle East priority during his last year in office.

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