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With good intentions Bush ambushes Israel
May 16, 2008
Unlike his previous visit in early January, this time Bush did not visit the Palestinian areas. Both sides were keen to make it an exclusive visit to a friendly country. Israel could not have asked for a friendlier American leader.
During the first term the American president consciously kept away from the complex Middle East peace process. Unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton [Images], he was not keen to invest any political capital in the peace process. If Clinton could not accomplish much, why even try. Taking cue from their leader, senior American officials also opted for a hand-off policy towards the Arab-Israeli peace making.
With the trauma of the September 11 attacks consuming much of his time and energy, President Bush had little interest in the peace process. His primary attention was devoted to fighting Al Qaeda [Images] in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Subsequently, Iran and its suspected nuclear programme garnered his attention.
As a result, more than any other American leader, President Bush largely left the peace process to Israel and its leaders. He was quick to embrace Ariel Sharon who was elected prime minister weeks after the American election. They worked in tandem. Bush echoed when Sharon said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was 'no peace partner' and soon Arafat became persona non grata at the White House.
When Sharon unveiled his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip, the American leader was more than happy and conveniently forgot the more complicated West Bank. The security fence that Sharon ordered gravely violated the pre-June 1967 borders or the Green Line. But Bush would not take notice.
Even after Sharon left the political scene following a massive stroke in early 2006, Bush pursued the same course. Dismissing European advice, Bush joined Israel in isolating Hamas following the spectacular victory of the Islamic militants in the Palestinian election later that month. Bush found no contradiction between this and his campaign for democratising the Middle East.
During the second Lebanese war the US President gave a large leeway to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to 'clean up' the military operations against Hezbollah. He was not prepared to demand a ceasefire until the Israeli commanders admitted that they did not have a workable military option to secure the two Israeli soldiers captured by the Islamic militant group.
Furthermore, more than any other world leader, Bush has been taking a strong and belligerent position against Iran and its periodic outbursts against Israel. Suspicions over the Iranian nuclear programme brought Israel and the US closer.
Partly to regain credibility and party to secure Arab support for his policy on Iran and Iraq, he has been reiterating his support for a two-State solution; Israeli and Palestinian States living side by side with peace and security. With much fanfare last November he organised a Middle East conference in Annapolis where leaders from over 40 countries and organisations took part and reiterated their commitment to the Middle East peace process. With the sole exception of Iran every major player in the world was present at the jamboree.
To give an impression of seriousness, President Bush even promised tangible outcomes before he leaves office; in practical terms, before the US presidential election is held later this year. His two visits to Israel in quick succession have to be viewed within this self-imposed November 2008 deadline.
As many analysts have pointed out, by excessively identifying with the policies of Israel, Bush has actually worked against Israel's long-term interests.
Indeed, the Jewish State has become more unsure now than in it was in January 2001 when Bush became president. Since then Hamas and Hezbollah exposed the limitations of Israel's military options. The Palestinian Authority enamoured by Israel and Washington is friendlier, accommodative but ineffective. Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2006, Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas is not even a paper tiger. Abbas promises friendship but Hamas delivers Qassam rockets.
Furthermore, Iran, Israel's principal adversary, has gained from Bush's Middle East strategy. He removed two most dreaded enemies of Tehran; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. By 'democratising' Iraq and handing over power to the majority, Bush has also created as Arab Shia State. When Iranian officials speak of a Shia crescent extending from Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, they would secretly thank Uncle Sam.
In tacking Iran, both the US and Israel are clueless. Informed analysts in both countries dismiss a military option as ineffective and counterproductive. At the same time, Israel and the US have not been able to evolve a viable politico-economic strategy that would be acceptable to other major players.
Meanwhile, the US-Europe divide over Iraq came handy to Iran and like the resurgent Moscow [Images] under Vladimir Putin [Images], Tehran has managed to exploit its energy resources to create a severe wedge between the US and other energy-dependent economies like India and China.
If these are not enough, the Iraqi saga continues and there appears no honourable exit for the US from the quagmire it had created. If its continued presence intensifies resistance, its early exit would have unpredictable consequences of many of Iraq's Sunni neighbours, most of whom are friends of the US. Dammed if you pullout and dammed if you don't.
Bush's newly-found involvement in the peace process is a typical case of too-little-too-late. With the US election just months away, no one expects anything dramatic. As Clinton found out during the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000, a century-old vexed conflict can't be resolved in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, what about the two-State solution? Wait for a more sober US president, if not the next generation!
P R Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East affairs at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently based in Jerusalem.