Analysis: Bush and his Mideast footpath

His 360-degree turn may be meant to lay groundwork for his successor.

bush olmert back 88 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
bush olmert back 88 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
What a difference eight years makes. US President George W. Bush, who came into the Oval Office highly critical of his predecessor's super-involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, is on his way out of office up to his eyeballs in the details of that same conflict. How ironic it is that Bush has representatives here talking about which dirt barriers need to be moved from which West Bank dirt roads; the same Bush who criticized president Bill Clinton and his staff for their immersion in the minutiae of the conflict. "Take the Middle East seriously, because that's the center of - that's the place where people get so despondent and despair that they're willing to come and take lives of US citizens," Bush said in an interview on Monday with Al-Arabiya television, summing up advice he would give his successor. And that type of advice is a 180-degree turn from where he was at the beginning of his tenure. But Bush is trying to do more for his successor than simply dispense advice. On his second trip to Israel in five months, after not coming here once during his first seven years, the US president is trying to carve out a Middle East footpath for his successor. The next American leader may not choose to walk down that path - just as Bush chose to forge his own way in the region, independent of what Clinton did - but he wants that footpath in place. Hence the importance he attributes to coming up with a "shelf agreement" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority before he leaves office; hence the importance he attributes to Gen. James Jones's efforts to chart the security needs of Israel and the region. Bush is well aware of the instinct of new presidents, especially those coming from other parties, to view much of what their predecessors did as useless, and set out to change it. Bush himself was accused in his early years in office of adopting what one New York Times writer pithily termed an "ABC policy" - Anything But Clinton - or, more precisely, a policy of doing everything differently from the way Bill Clinton did. A shelf agreement with the PA that would set out in detail the parameters of a future Palestinian state would, to a large degree, set an irrevocable policy course that even an administration hell-bent on reversing Bush policies would have a tough time touching. Bush is also well aware from his experience that whoever takes over in the Oval Office will have a rather steep learning curve. There will be an instinct, an instinct he himself had, to toss out everything that came before and say "I can do it better." But it will take time for the next president to rediscover the Middle East wheel, and it is that gap which the shelf agreement would fill. Another indication that Bush is interested in leaving stepping stones for his successor is the work being done - very much under the radar screen - by Jones. Jones, who has kept a nearly invisible profile here since being appointed US special security envoy in November, is quietly and busily surveying the security landscape of the region, with the hope - according to Israeli officials - of preparing a paper to document what the US sees as Israel's true security needs. This type of documentation - a bottom line of America's view of Israel's security needs - could be critical in any future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, because if Israel at a certain point said that it would be unable to move from a certain area, or to take certain steps, any future American administration could go to the Jones document for a "ruling" on whether this was a legitimate fear, or just an "Israeli excuse." "I'm not running for the Nobel Peace Prize," Bush told The Jerusalem Post, trying to dispel the notion that his full-court press here now was an attempt to secure a lasting positive legacy for himself. "I'm just trying to be a guy to use the influence of the United States to move the process along." And also, of course, a guy trying to set a clear and irreversible direction for whoever follows him into the White House.