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Bush struggles with legacy on Mideast peace

Ms. Rice concludes a one-day trip to the region Monday. Her 22 visits have netted little progress.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 2008

Progress? Israel released 200 Palestinian prisoners Monday to boost President Mahmoud Abbas and faltering peace efforts. They were taken by bus to the West Bank.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

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Tel Aviv, Israel

Nine months since President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted the much touted Annapolis Conference on Middle East peace – at which all sides pledged to work toward a settlement by the end of 2008 – Ms. Rice is once more pushing in person for some kind of deal before the administration leaves office.

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Her arrival here Sunday marks the 22nd time she's shown up to shuttle between the sides. Yet the main thing Israelis and Palestinians seem to have come any closer on is a shared sense of disappointment.

For decades, American presidents have strived to resolve long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian troubles. Yet Bush, who won some plaudits early on as a president who championed a two-state solution more boldly than any of his predecessors did, is struggling to burnish his legacy on Middle East peace.

The lack of progress here may stem from early misconceptions about the region and a lack of sustained effort in resolving the conflict. Weak Israeli and Palestinian leadership were also a factor.

"President Bush came into office and declared he had a vision – but in practice there was nothing visionary, innovative, or well thought-out," says Yoram Meital, head of the Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. "And as a consequence we have been driving full speed ahead on neutral for a very long time."

Too little, too late?

According to Michael Oren, a visiting professor at Georgetown University and author of "Power, Faith and Fantasy," a history of American involvement in the Middle East, Bush spent five full days in office on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, coming to the region twice and hosting the two-day Annapolis conference – not an inconsiderable effort.

Over the years Bush has pressured Israel to disengage from Gaza and dismantle settlements, and pushed the Palestinians to hold democratic elections.

But many here maintain his efforts were not enough. President Carter, who brokered the 1978 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, dedicated a record 14 days of his administration to the peace process, says Professor Oren.

President Bill Clinton, who orchestrated the first-ever handshake between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 1993 and later came close to forging a comprehensive deal at Camp David, invested 13 days.

"At least Clinton made a real effort," sighs Mohammed Dajani, director of the American Studies Institute at Jerusalem's Al-Quds University. "With the Bush administration ... we have no sense of any legacy at all."

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