Low hopes for Bush Mideast trip

He'll celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary, but meet with Israel's Olmert and Palestinian territories' Abbas separately.

SOURCE: The White House/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

The pageantry of President Bush's trip to the Middle East this week is sure to be impressive. On May 15, he'll tour the ancient fortress of Masada, then commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel with an address to the Knesset. The next day he'll travel to Saudi Arabia to help mark the 75th anniversary of formal US-Saudi relations. He'll meet with Saudi King Abdallah at the king's farm.

The substance of the journey, however, is unlikely to live up to the White House's once-high expectations. Last year, the White House tried to jump-start the Middle East peace process by hosting Israeli and Palestinian leaders at an Annapolis, MD., conference. Today, there seems little chance that Bush will help deliver an outline for real Israeli-Palestinian peace before he leaves office.

"It's hard to remember a less auspicious time to pursue Arab-Israeli peacemaking than right now. The politics on the ground are absolutely miserable," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), at a recent seminar.

Bush was set to leave Washington for the Mideast trip, his second in four months, on Tuesday evening. He will arrive in Israel early in the morning on Wednesday, local time.

When the US president arrives in the region, he will find that the leaders who would have to deliver an agreement are weak at home in varying degrees, meaning it may be difficult for them to agree to any necessary concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is enmeshed in a corruption scandal that could result in his ouster. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas faces a threat from the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Abbas "can't make a peace deal in the name of all Palestinians if he can't speak for all Palestinians, and the split between Gaza and the West Bank means that he cannot," said Mr. Alterman.

For his part, Mr. Bush has only a few months left in office, meaning that officials in the region are starting to look past the Bush administration to whatever new team the November elections will bring.

Frustrated Palestinians in particular may believe that a new Democratic administration – particularly one headed by Barack Obama – might lean more in their direction.

"In some ways this is the roadshow cast of 'Waiting for Godot,'" said Anthony Cordesman, a CSIS military expert, at the trip briefing.

Given these constraints, Bush's itinerary for the trip does not include any kind of three-way US-Israeli-Palestinian meeting.

Bilateral conversations between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators seem to be going well, say US officials. Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas met earlier this month. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to the region in early May.

"So at this point, we think the bilateral negotiations are key.... A lot of [negotiation] is better done, quite frankly, in private than in public," said National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley at a May 7 briefing on Bush's trip.

The trip will be a "mix" between symbolism and substance, said Mr. Hadley. Besides Bush's participation in Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations and his trip to Saudi Arabia, the president will address hundreds of global policymakers and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt.

In any discussions with the Saudis and the leaders of other Gulf oil-producing nations, Bush is likely to raise the subject of the high price of gasoline, said Hadley.

"The message the president has sent to oil suppliers in the Middle East, and I'm sure will continue to send, is that... as they consider their production targets they need to take into account the economic health of the global community," said Bush's national security advisor.

Out of politeness, the Saudis may announce some action on an increase in oil production levels during Bush's trip, say regional experts.

But given that Saudi officials appear to believe that the Bush administration has not leaned enough on Israel to produce peace-process concessions, and has unsettled the region generally with the invasion of Iraq, politeness may be as far as such an effort goes.

"They're not really going to put themselves out to help this president. In past years, the Saudis have really put themselves out to help American presidents," said Alterman.

On the peace process, in the end it is important that Bush at least has pushed Israel and the Palestinians to discuss the most difficult issues that remain, including the future of Jerusalem and the possible right of return for Palestinians to ancestral land in Israel.

An actual treaty wrapping up these issues is unlikely, said Aaron Miller, a former US negotiator now with the Woodrow Wilson Institute.

But "it is conceivable that by year's end, with or without the help of our secretary of State or president, that you could have a piece of paper emerge that would create parameters on Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and security, which would be historic," said Mr. Miller at a Council on Foreign Relations seminar.

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