MAXWELL: Lame duck president has Middle East mess
2/25/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

After six years of dithering and with two years left in office, the Bush administration, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flying between Middle East capitals, apparently realizes that it has made a complete mess of the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian Diaspora.
George W. Bush came into office determined to be Un-Clinton: He would stay out of this Holy Land’s blood feud and enduring land dispute. He would let then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon call the shots, and he would shun then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. And later, he would help Israel isolate and economically strangle the democratically elected Hamas government.
But then came an unintended consequence: By demonizing Arafat and Hamas, Bush destroyed any chance of forging an alliance with the handful of Arab moderate leaders he needs to wage his so-called war on terror and to repair the United States’ standing in the volatile region.
From the beginning, Bush and his team, slaves to neo-conservative propaganda, were in over their heads in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the administration’s cheerleading of Israel during last summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon and the most recent meltdown in talks between Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suggests that Bush, the lame duck, has failed precisely where he needs to win.
In short, the president of the United States of America lacks the credibility to persuade the two sides to discuss the tough issues in the “performance-based road map” that he famously presented in an April 2003 speech. The road map’s destination, in the administration’s own words, “is a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005.” It was envisioned as a two-state solution to a crisis that began in 1948, when the state of Israel was created – when thousands of Palestinians were kicked off their traditional land and out of their homes.
With no sense of Middle East history and without empathy for the Palestinian cause, Bush has not been an honest broker in any attempts to negotiate peace between the warring groups. Like most of his predecessors, Bush cites Israel’s need for security as the reason to give the Jewish state a free hand to implement Draconian policies that dehumanize Palestinians. And, of course, Israel’s harsh behavior gave birth to Palestinian organizations that use terror as a means of protest, defense and survival.
Honest brokers learned this ugly truth years ago. As a dedicated supporter of Israeli policies, however, Bush rejects this truth and, therefore, blames the Palestinians for the region’s problems. The road map, for example, prominently calls for the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist, accept previously negotiated treaties and forswear violence.
Rarely does anyone mention the onerous requirement that the Palestinians must elect a government acceptable both to Israel and the United States. And rarely does anyone high up in the Bush White House rebuke Israel for violating the prohibition against building new settlements and outposts.
Well, we know that Israel and the United States oppose the Hamas-elected government, and they have dismissed the proposed unity pact between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas. Such a coalition would ease and perhaps stop the deadly civil strife in Gaza and would give Hamas more cause to stop attacking Israel.
We also know that Israeli settlement construction on Palestinian land continues – without punishment – in plain sight of the Bush crowd. And just as the United States and Israel isolated Arafat, the process to emasculate Abbas seems to have been started.
Bush probably is serious about leaving a respectable personal legacy in the region, but Israel seems to have little genuine interest in empowering Palestinians with the tools to become self-reliant neighbors.
Among other lessons, Israel needs to learn that it cannot pick leaders for the Palestinian Diaspora. If the Jewish state is to ever live peacefully, it will have to learn that it must coexist with the Palestinian government it will have, not with the one it wants.