Bush's Middle Eastern Folly

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 17, 2007; 12:06 PM

President Bush's sudden devotion to the cause of peace in the Middle East is ringing more than a little hollow.

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush launched a diplomatic effort yesterday to revive the long-moribund Middle East peace process, announcing aid to the Palestinian government and calling for an international conference this fall aimed at paving the way for the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. . . .

"The idea has come together only in recent days, and administration officials were scrambling to figure out details yesterday, such as where and when the conference would be held. More important, they acknowledged that they have no guarantees that any of the key players will attend. . . .

"Bush's latest foray into the thicket of Middle East politics leaves him trying to salvage some sort of legacy in the region as time runs short on his presidency. Success is predicated on the ability of three deeply weakened leaders to find a way to come together. As Bush's approval ratings remain mired among the lowest of the modern era, [Israeli President Ehud] Olmert's political position appears precarious following last year's war in Lebanon. And [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas has just lost much of his territory. . . .

"Bush originally planned to deliver a speech last month on the anniversary of his 2002 speech committing to setting terms for a Palestinian state by now, but the Hamas takeover of Gaza forced the White House to shelve the idea for weeks."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times that the announcement "signals another pivotal shift for an administration that is desperately seeking some kind of foreign policy victory in the volatile Middle East that would draw attention away from the war in Iraq. For several years, the Bush administration has eschewed direct engagement in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and has refused to press Israel to dismantle settlements or to sit down at the table with Palestinian counterparts to discuss a future Palestinian state. . . .

"Several critics of Mr. Bush's Middle East policy said his speech on Monday should have been delivered two years ago, after Mr. Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, and before Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006.

"Another criticism was made by Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. 'Dividing the region into extremists and moderates may sound nice, neat and tidy in a speech,' he said, 'but on the ground there is a huge gray area that the president apparently refuses to acknowledge.'"

Andrew Lee Butter writes for Time: "All this from an administration that was once wary of repeating the patterns of previous presidencies by devoting time and prestige to solving a conflict that refused to be solved.

"The difference now is that the Bush administration, with just 18 months left in office, is in dire need of some policy victories in the Middle East. In particular, it must show its Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia -- whose help Washington needs to stabilize Iraq -- that the U.S. is willing to put its weight behind the peace process. But in looking to score points in the Middle East, Bush is likely to be as disappointed as his predecessors. That's because the core of his strategy to bolster moderate Arab states and moderate Palestinians while shunning the region's radicals is a case of too little too late. The sad reality is that the moderates of the Arab world have little to offer Israel and less and less power to promote peace in the Middle East. . . .

"Just as Bush would exclude Hamas from Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, his call for a regional peace conference notably excludes countries that are hostile to Israel, especially Syria and Iran. A peace conference that doesn't involve enemies sitting down across from each other isn't much of a peace conference."

William Douglas and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, noted that Bush's speech came as the United States is on the defensive across the Middle East, with the war in Iraq going poorly and Iran showing increased confidence.

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