Bush Clutches at a Middle East Legacy, But Too Late

One can hardly blame the Bush administration for wanting to change the subject when it comes to foreign policy.

Iraq remains bloody and chaotic, the security situation in Afghanistan is rocky and efforts to stabilize Pakistan by pushing Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto into a pact are at risk of unraveling.

Casting around for some way to chalk up an international success, the White House has of late turned its attention to an unlikely candidate: the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her seventh trip of the year to the region last week. She is expected to return for visit number eight shortly.

Her travels are part of a frenzied effort by the administration to revitalize the long moribund Middle East peace process. There have been no official peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians for seven years. Ms. Rice is pushing the two sides to come to a summit in Annapolis, Md., that has been tentatively scheduled for late November or early December.

So far, most of the bartering has concerned the agenda. The Palestinians want a substantive document to be agreed in advance, outlining a common approach to key issues, including the likely boundaries of a future Palestine, the status of Israeli settlements and the division of Jerusalem.

The Israelis would prefer much less detail, and are also reluctant to agree to any timetables or deadlines for agreement, which the Palestinians want.

The situation is further complicated by the weakness of the leaders on both sides. The authority of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is fundamentally undercut by Hamas’ continuing control of the Gaza Strip, while Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is unpopular domestically, in part because he is battling corruption allegations.

Undaunted, Ms. Rice and President Bush have been trying to change the political atmosphere, sounding notes of optimism and highlighting Palestinian concerns to an unusual extent.

"Frankly, it is time for the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Ms. Rice said after meeting Mr. Abbas this month.

“The Palestinians, that have been made promises all these years need to see there’s a serious, focused effort” to create a state, Mr. Bush noted at a Washington press conference.

Mr. Bush also asserted, “I believe that we will see a democratic [Palestinian] state…I’m optimistic this can be achieved and we’ll continue working to that end.”

The problem with such sentiments is simple: it is too little and too late.

As everyone with a realistic view of the Middle East knows, the U.S. is not seen as an honest broker in the region. The Palestinians, and the broader Arab world, note that the U.S. is a staunch backer of Israel and therefore assume that any American-sponsored initiative is either merely cosmetic or has an ulterior motive.

Those sentiments apply to any U.S. administration. But the policies of the Bush White House make it especially loathed. The mismanagement of the Iraq war looms over everything. And the administration’s de facto support for Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon last year, and its failure to follow through on previous lofty rhetoric about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the President outlined the ‘roadmap’ for peace in June 2002, after which virtually nothing happened—has cankered its reputation.

Bush Clutches at a Middle East Legacy, But Too Late