gen james jones 224 88.
(photo credit: NATO [file])
The much-anticipated conference at the US Naval Academy began with a curious moment.
Flanked by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, US President George W. Bush started by reading a joint "understanding" reached between the Israelis and Palestinians in which he committed his remaining term in office to pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He concluded by referring to the role of judge that the US would play to implement the agreement. And then, as they were lining up to pose for photographs, Olmert tugged Bush so that he would be in the right position.
The silent gesture spoke volumes of the way in which the United States has been dragged by external events into a thorny foreign policy fracas it had long sought to stand above. Where it once criticized the Clinton administration for its over-deep involvement in a protracted conflict it ultimately failed to resolve, it now finds itself at Ground Zero for the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Bush spoke about the threats that face moderates - Palestinians as well as the greater Arab world - if peace and a two-state solution does not prevail. "If Palestinian reformers cannot deliver on this hopeful vision, then the forces of extremism and terror will be strengthened, a generation of Palestinians could be lost to the extremists, and the Middle East will grow in despair," Bush said in arguing that now is the right time for peace.
Unstated, though implied in his words, is the role of Iran as the ultimate rejectionist power, and the fear that an emboldened Iran strikes into the more moderate Arab countries who attended the conference - the likes of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
But the threats also face Bush. Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the UN, focused that threat on the Arab countries, but it could just as easily apply to Israel and the US.
"Iran is what brought everyone here and this very much is a summit of hope and fear. Our hope for peace and the Arab world's fear for Iran," he told The Jerusalem Post.
So Bush finds himself, with a year left in office, pushing a process that his administration hopes will help neutralize Iran.
To that end, Bush personally committed himself - as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has - to furthering this process. Rice is expected to return to the region soon, and in the meantime the US is setting up follow-up committees for this peace effort.
Most concretely, the joint understanding brokered ahead of the conference states that, "The United States will monitor and judge the fulfillment of the commitment of both sides of the road map."
That puts the US in a central facilitating role that leaves no room for standing on the sidelines.
Already names are being bandied about for who will serve in that capacity, including reports that the former supreme allied commander of NATO's military forces in Europe. James Jones was a four-star general and also served as the commandant of the Marine Corps.
All of this entails overseeing "vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations," as the joint understanding put it, as well as agreeing to "make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008" - which just happens to coincide with the end of Bush's term. The administration has been at pains to say this is a timeline sought by the parties, not the US, but the coincidence in timing hasn't gone unnoticed.
Martin Indyk, for one, is warning against an artificial timeline. Indyk, who used to serve as the US ambassador in Israel and now supports the administration's efforts, cautioned that "it would be a mistake for them to drive this to a conclusion by the end of the administration."
He noted that "that was precisely what Bush [criticized] Clinton for doing," and that it would be "ironic" for Bush to take the same approach.
And any initiative needs to be based on more than what steps America take, including serving as a monitor, according to Thomas Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist who first reported the Saudi peace plan.
"It's what the Israelis and Palestinians commit to do," he said.
Fear, he said, "will only take you so far." For there to be progress towards peace, he said, "It has to be based on a common vision." â€¢
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