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In the long run, history may take a kinder view of George W. Bush's presidency than that of the majority of the American people, who now see him as a failure. But anyone in Washington who thinks that he can boost his poll ratings or score a foreign-policy triumph on the heels of the Arab-Israeli conflict to divert attention away from Iraq is just dreaming.
Bush's latest major statement on the Middle East - timed to coincide with a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas - is seen by many as an attempt by the administration to change the subject from Iraq.
That isn't likely.
But for all the abuse he and his team have taken about their inability to state their case on Iraq or the war on Islamist terror, and in spite of the fact that he may well be the most inarticulate man to be president of the United States since the invention of sound recordings, Bush has said some very sensible things about the Mideast during his presidency.
LAST WEEK'S speech is another example of the ability of the president and his writers to state some plain facts about the Palestinians and the ongoing war on Israel.
Coming five years after his clarion call for statehood for the Palestinians - provided they renounced terror and adopted democratic norms - Bush tried to sound some of the same themes again: "The Palestinian people must decide that they want a future of decency and hope - not a future of terror and death. They must match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror," the president proclaimed.
Speaking of stopping attacks on Israel, he quite properly declared that doing so is the "only way to end the conflict, and nothing else is acceptable.
This demonstrates a degree of realism that was never found in the Clinton administration, which was so busy whitewashing Yasser Arafat in the name of advancing peace that neither the president nor his diplomatic team ever realized the fact that Arafat had no real interest in peace.
Bush departed from decades of pro-Arabist policy, an achievement for which he got little credit. But this is not a moment to dwell too much on his virtues. Unfortunately, the administration appears to be headed for a more certain failure on this issue than even its highly unpopular policies in Iraq.
THE REASON for this is that just as Clinton once wagered his chance of a Nobel Peace Prize on the integrity of Yasser Arafat, Bush is resting his hopes on the slender shoulders of Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas. And for all the outward differences between the two, Abbas is an even worse bet than Arafat.
Arafat was an incorrigible liar and a terrorist, but had he ever taken it into his head to actually try to build peace, he might have had the power - and the firepower - to make it stick.
As Abbas has demonstrated in the years he has been in command of the PA, he does not have that same power. And whatever influence he might have once had, as even the denizens of the State Department have noticed, he no longer controls Gaza, which is in the hands of Hamas.
Bush rightly won't deal with Hamas in the same way he avoided Arafat, but the fact that he is not a member of this popular Islamist movement doesn't make Abbas a peacemaker. Nor, despite his more presentable image, has he shown any greater willingness to be one than his deceased longtime chief.
THAT'S NOT the line being taken by senior administration officials, who have been made available to talk up the latest initiative. When asked why anyone should think Abbas's government will actually do what the president has asked him to do about incitement and terror after he never did so before, they respond as if someone has made a rude or ignorant remark.
Instead, they point to "a lot of positive factors on the ground" which, they say, demonstrates the "types of dynamics we're hoping to reinforce." These officials are honest enough to admit that these "dynamics" are "incipient, very incipient," but that's just Washington double-talk for faith in unrealistic Palestinian promises.
In exchange for these "incipient" measures, Bush is prepared to hand over almost half a billion dollars in US taxpayer cash.
Abbas's appointment of Salaam Fayad as his prime minister to replace the Hamas member who was elected to that position by the Palestinian people is seen by Washington as a guarantee of honesty. But even though Fayad might be honest, it's impossible to argue that this is true of Abbas and Fatah, whose legendary thievery made the Islamist murderers of Hamas look like a band of Abraham Lincolns.
Nor is there any reason to imagine that the Fatah Party's own armed contingents will give up terror when it is their own al Aksa Martyrs' Brigade that has committed the majority of terrorist acts against Israel in the period that Abbas has been in power.
THE PROBLEM here is not just that the Palestinians won't easily change their ways. It is that this US aid and the Israeli concessions on security and prisoner releases will, inevitably, be portrayed as insufficient. No matter how much help he is given, Abbas's weakness and character flaws will be blamed on Israel and the United States, not on himself.
The notion that the presence of a US military "security coordinator" that administration officials boast is a big difference between now and the situation in 2002 when Bush first promised the Palestinians a state, is another fallacy.
It was Fatah operatives - often armed and trained by Western agencies - who launched the terror attacks of the second intifada, which started in the fall of 2000.
Given that Gaza is now the moral equivalent of Afghanistan before the overthrow of the Taliban - an Islamist terror state - it's understandable that Washington is prepared to do anything, even backing a sure loser such as Abbas, to fight it.
Bush deserves credit for going farther than any American president has ever gone to state that Israel's survival as a Jewish state (which is an implicit rejection of the Palestinians so-called "right of return") is a principle of US foreign policy. And the terms he has set for Palestinian statehood are, in theory, entirely appropriate.
But wishing for a viable alternative to Hamas is not the same thing as actually having one.
For its own reasons, Israel's government wishes to prop up Abbas as much as possible. But American friends of Israel, mindful of the potentially disastrous costs of American diplomatic and military failures elsewhere in the region, have an obligation to point out that a refusal to accept reality isn't good for Israel, the United States or any chances for peace.
What's needed now is honesty about the bankruptcy of Palestinian political culture, not faith in a government that deserves none.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.
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