This was Bush's first visit as president after 7 years in office. So, while it was a little late for a meet and greet, the president did come across as being absolutely serious in his intention to deliver an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement by the end of his term in office. Precious little progress since Annapolis had been made between the parties either on their day-to-day commitments or in negotiating core issues.
The president's visit served to press the reset button once again and get the process back on track. In describing his own prospective role going forward, Bush used the words "pressure," "nudge," and said that he was willing to be a "pain." That much is new. Translating this from words into actions will be interesting to watch. The president also finally (and almost five years after launching the Roadmap) appointed a U.S. monitor, namely Lt. Gen. William Fraser, to oversee implementation of Roadmap commitments. The president no doubt heard vows of commitments to the peace process from Olmert and Abbas and was probably impressed by how serious both of them are about reaching a deal. My guess is that this is more than lip service, that Bush believes he can get a deal and is going to take a real crack at it. My other guess is that he will be a prisoner of the narrow thinking that characterizes him and the team around him and that success is not only unlikely, but the very attempt, if mismanaged, could do more harm than good.
2. Still playing catch up on content
This administration has so far stubbornly refused to set out its own proposed parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Many consider there to be a need for American guidelines to help close the gap between the parties and to provide clarity on the thorniest of issues. The Clinton folks produced an important and relatively detailed set of parameters but they did so far too late in the day. On Thursday, President Bush did give his most far reaching speech to date on the substance of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Some of the press have treated this as a dramatic moment and suggested that the president broke new ground. On closer inspection and comparing the language in this speech to previous pronouncements shows that there was actually only one new word in the president's speech. This was the first time the president referred to "compensation" as being part of the refugee solution.
Yet more than anything else, the speech displays just how far this administration has to go in order to even catch up with where Bill Clinton was at in understanding the substance of permanent status. The president offered nothing whatsoever on Jerusalem, repeated his old mantra of ending the occupation that began in 1967 (which means very little) talked about land swaps and changes to the '49 line (which is the same as 67), but gave no details. The details matter. Any permanent status deal to end this conflict will be fragile and will require nurturing. My colleagues and I understood this in our effort to present a detailed model agreement known as the Geneva Initiative. Exact language, practical solutions, and detailed maps will all become essential if a deal is to be reached. Getting the balance wrong, for instance, by not accepting a one-to-one land swap or overindulging the settlements land grab will produce an unworkable, illegitimate, and unsustainable outcome. This may be a case of be careful what one wishes for. If the Bush administration gets the content wrong (and such a possibility should not be dismissed) it would again do more harm than good.
3. A prisoner of his own ideology
What most argues against a presidential success on Middle East peace is the particularly blinkered "war on terror" narrative to which the president has so rigidly adhered since 9/11. In the Israeli-Palestinian context this dramatically handicaps the president's ability to understand and interpret the conflict in a sophisticated, meaningful and realistic way. Yes, there is terror used in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but this conflict cannot be reduced to a struggle against terror and is far more constructively engaged as a story that has a lot to do with grievances, occupation and the hostility that they breed. But the president's war on terror narrative rejects the idea of root causes and legitimate grievances so the president has no intellectual compass to sensibly guide his Israel-Palestine intervention.
Of course Gaza was not on the president's itinerary. The idiots guide to conflict resolution will tell the president that Gaza is run by Hamas. They are terrorists. They must and will be defeated. Back in the real world, Hamas won a democratic election, even Israelis have no plan to militarily vanquish them. It is now broadly recognized that Hamas will need to be brought into a stability-building arrangement that can deliver ongoing security and broad legitimacy. The president's blinkered approach to political Islamists comes at the expense of the prospects for a sustainable peace. An early change to policy would look at pursuing a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas-led Gaza strip.
In general terms, the president has displayed remarkable indifference bordering on callousness toward the Palestinian predicament. Being attuned to Israeli security concerns, as he should be, should not preclude the president from achieving a human understanding of the Palestinian reality. The president seemed to avoid any exposure to the harshness of Palestinian daily realities during his visit. Standing alongside President Abbas in Ramallah, Bush managed to produce the following woefully insensitive chestnut: "You'll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped, but I'm not so exactly sure that's what happens to the average person." President Bush went on to dismiss UN resolutions related to the conflict and he is apparently accepting a very limited definition of settlement freeze that does not include either the settlement blocs or East Jerusalem. These positions mark yet another negative contribution to dealing with the conflict from this administration.
4. Discounted in the Gulf
President Bush moved on from Israel to the Gulf. On the Israeli and Palestinian side, the leaderships are domestically politically weak and are hanging on to Bush's coattails. In the Gulf the situation looks somewhat different. Much of the Gulf seems to be discounting a full year of what is already being viewed as a lame-duck presidency. Some of the Gulf leaders are looking to sign a new arms sales deal and all will pay a certain lip service on the Iran issue. But in the Gulf they are clearly hedging their bets. The Gulf states are maintaining relations with Hamas. The Hamas leadership was in Saudi recently and the Saudis facilitated the attendance of Gazan pilgrims while Qatar has just reopened its representative office in Gaza. The Gulf Cooperation Council notably hosted for the first time ever an Iranian president at its meeting last month.
Additionally, the Saudis facilitated the attendance of Ahmadinejad himself at the Hajj last month. Marc Lynch on his Abuaardvark blog has an excellent piece on this. And the Gulf is far from alone in looking ahead to the post-Bush era.