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The Bush push

Middle East | The clock is ticking on a presidential legacy in the Middle East

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

Although President George Bush's five-day trip to the Middle East in May was largely devoted to celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary, many observers noted that the clock is ticking. Six months have passed since the president and his 50-plus guests met in Annapolis and revived Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations that had been frozen for seven years. Less than eight months remain for this administration to turn the tide in a conflict that has plagued the region for decades.

Although the talks have been held behind closed doors, the potential compromises are well-known. Here is a breakdown of the major points of disagreement, along with the current obstacles that must be surmounted if the latest march toward peace in the region is to succeed:

Points of Disagreement

The final borders for a two-state solution: This is the core disagreement of the conflict: who controls what (if any) portion of the land. After a complete withdrawal from Gaza last summer, Israeli negotiators are pushing hard to retain some settlements in the West Bank. Walid Phares, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told WORLD he believes a compromise on final borders is "closer than we think."

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The status of Jerusalem: The battle over Judaism's holiest city and Islam's third holiest is wrought with emotion and controversy. This may prove to be the most difficult disagreement to resolve: Israeli negotiators say they will not give up sovereignty over the Old City, and a Knesset majority recently voted to oppose any negotiation that would alter the status of Jerusalem. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their capital.

The fate of Palestinian refugees: One compromise being considered is family unification for as many as 10,000 Palestinians. Phares says the closest point of agreement concerns the fate of refugees originating from the areas Israel acknowledges as Palestinian. Some form of international compensation for refugees may also make its way to the negotiation table.

Current Obstacles

The Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007: "No greetings to you, Bush, on our holy land," Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said during the president's first peacemaking trip to the region in March. Hamas, which took over Gaza last summer, remains a significant problem for both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Israel refuses to end its blockade of Gaza until the rocket attacks are stopped. On May 14, a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza hit a shopping mall in Ashkelon, injuring 15 people.

Israeli settlement building in the West Bank: The construction of new settlements continues, violating the framework agreement. On May 5 Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad warned that negotiations could be jeopardized if Israel fails to meet this crucial requirement established at Annapolis. Arab leaders accused Bush of side-stepping this issue during his recent speech to the Knesset-a speech that was roundly regarded as nonspecific and flat (one Knesset member called it "embarrassing") but for its reference to U.S. politicians who are ready to "negotiate with terrorists." The presumed reference to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama trumped substantive news from the president's trip and sparked outrage from Democrats who claimed that the president had violated a cardinal rule of doing business abroad-leaving domestic controversy at home.

Corruption charges against Olmert: Facing corruption charges that could result in an indictment, Olmert's days as prime minister may be numbered. This could result in a much weaker declaration.

The Hezbollah offensive in Lebanon: "Strategically, the Hezbollah offensive in Lebanon could be the single most dangerous development for Israel-far more than Hamas shelling," Phares said. The most recent violence to change the landscape of peace talks carries with it a harsh reminder for Israelis: Even if an agreement is established and implemented, there are still enemies close by who would like to see Israel wiped off the map.

"Gaza is isolated geographically, but Hezbollah has the Lebanese Syrian borders wide open to Syria and Iran. Hezbollah's seizing of Lebanon is the equivalent of an Iranian division deployed a few kilometers from the Galilee with 30,000 rockets and missiles."

Bush's national security advisory, Stephen Hadley, said there could be a third trip by the president to the Middle East before the end of 2008 if "there is work for him to advance the peace process."

Phares says these final hours must be used wisely: "The Bush administration must use all its assets in the last five effective months to roll back Hezbollah and put immense pressure on the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Any move in any other direction will be transformed into a greater defeat." In the Middle East, it often comes down to choosing the best of the bad options.

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