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.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
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.

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.

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."

With weak leaders, talks falter

But would more time truly have made a difference? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's departure from political leadership in 2005, and the rise of Hamas in 2006 elections, certainly hurt US efforts here.

But the big problem in recent years, Oren believes, has been the lack of effective leadership on the Israeli and Palestinian sides. "It's fashionable to say Bush missed opportunities and was using the wrong paradigm, but I disagree. The DNA of peacemaking is strong Palestinian and Israeli leadership. And that we don't have."

"If Bush had tried to do more in these circumstances he would have risked further deteriorating the prestige of his presidency," he continues.

Even those who believe that US moves might have once made a difference admit that now – with the Bush administration in its waning days – and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders arguably at their lowest domestic points yet – time has run out.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is mired in scandal and on his way out of office in September. The vicious and deepening split between Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas continues to undercut the authority of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen).

"There is not enough time to do any work now. None of the players are in any shape to formulate policy and no one has energy to work on this peace process," says Mr. Dajani.

Danny Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to Washington until 2006, agrees: "The only thing we can hope for now is to avoid a complete breakdown in dialogue and keep a small flame going for the next American administration."

"There is absolutely no hope for progress on the peace process at this junction," Mr. Ayalon continues. The name of the game now is just keeping the fragile pieces together and a facade of momentum."

Prisoner release fails to satisfy

Even the release of 198 Palestinian prisoners Monday – as a goodwill measure toward Mr. Abbas – did little to brighten the mood here.

"The idea that this is going to strengthen Abu Mazen in any substantial way is a big mistake," says Meital. "There will be celebrations, yes, but the day after, nothing significant will remain and it will not move dialogue forward."

The unilateral prisoner release could actually backfire, Professor Meital worries, creating more tension between Fatah and Hamas and giving Abbas critics more ammunition to argue that the leader is too cozy with the Israelis. Hamas has been trying to secure a similar prisoner release in exchange for abducted Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, whom they have held since 2006.

And while the release provoked anger among many Israelis – at least two of the prisoners released had killed Israeli citizens – many Palestinians argue the gesture is far from enough. More than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners remain in Israeli jails.

It is unclear if Rice, when her plane takes off Tuesday, will return here as secretary of State. In any case, her visits might have a calming effect on the parties, says Ayalon, but are no longer seen as harbingers of progress.

In fact her arrival here – which not long ago would have easily topped the local news – was met with little attention from the media.

"Now all we can do is wait," Ayalon says. "No matter who wins the US elections, it will take months for the new administration to settle in, and no one expects any changes on the ground here during that time. Basically, we are talking about next summer."

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