Welcome to the real world, Mr President
Bush has left his Mideast visit too late in his presidency to be of any use, says Philip Jacobson
It says everything about President Bush's calamitous role in the Middle East peace process that tomorrow he will be setting foot in Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first time since taking office seven years ago.
Having ignored the cockpit of the regional conflict for so long, he may be surprised to discover that events on the ground in this tough neighbourhood have a nasty habit of overtaking half-baked diplomatic initiatives. Whatever Bush's advisers may have told him ahead of his flying visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah (the Palestinian capital), the prospects of salvaging something from the wreckage of his policies for the region are depressingly remote.
What Bush appears not to grasp is that both the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, are chronically weak leaders, lacking the popular support required to contemplate meaningful compromises. As a result, the conciliatory paper commitments they made at the much-hyped Annapolis peace conference in November have achieved nothing.
Israel has stepped up its battering of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Islamic militant factions there continue to shower rockets on Israeli civilians. While the Israelis have resumed the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian authorities are still not cracking down effectively on groups involved in terrorism.
Bush's most immediate objective should be to dissuade Olmert from launching a major offensive in Gaza, as his military commanders are now urging, and to remind Abbas forcefully that Washington expects action in return for its support.
Yet as long as Hamas does nothing to prevent missile attacks - the other day, a Katyusha rocket struck the port city of Ashkelon, the most distant point inside Israel to be hit so far - there remains precious little scope for the US to advance the search for peace. Mr President, the time has come for some serious arm-twisting. ·
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