Washington Watch: Leaving peacemaking for later

It looks like Bush's decision to pursue more active role was just for show.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
If George W. Bush wants to see his vision for Middle East peace come to fruition, will he have to vote Democratic in November? After years of all talk and no action, the lame duck president now says he is ready to get to work on realizing his vision of creating a democratic Palestinian state to live alongside Israel in peace. However, he's having trouble convincing admirers and critics alike that he is finally serious. A big problem for the president is that those who don't welcome his new approach - if he really is shifting from rhetoric to action - are among his most ardent supporters in the US and in Israel. To them this is an unwelcome change from his longstanding practice of benign neglect to one they regard as meddling and pressure. As reported here previously, many hardliners felt Bush's greatest appeal was that he left Israel alone, free of any real American demands to pursue tough compromises with the Palestinians. That may or may not have changed late last November when he convened a meeting - not a peace conference, the administration insisted - at Annapolis to try to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The subsequent lackadaisical pace of talks and listless American prodding suggest no one is in any great rush to meet Bush's original one-year deadline. The president himself has been in steady retreat since leaving Annapolis, downscaling his rhetoric from "one year" to "I believe it's going to happen" to hoping for a document that merely "defines a Palestinian state" by the end of his term. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, the Olmert government's chief test pilot for trial balloons, seemed to confirm that recently when he said the best one can hope for is a "declaration of principles" to hand off to the next American president. That drew a big yawn on the American political campaign trail, where no one seemed to notice or care very much. In fact, the peace process has not been an issue in this year's presidential campaign - at least since Rudy Giuliani dropped out - and none of the three finalists has seen any need to raise it. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, the presumptive Republican nominee, has said peace "must remain a priority" but he and his top Jewish surrogate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, have been cool to the Annapolis process and unenthusiastic about trying to negotiate a peace deal with the weak and bifurcated Palestinian Authority. It's clearly not one of their priorities. More critically, McCain is sensitive to the opposition to Bush's new approach from Republican evangelical and Jewish voters and contributors. The Arizonan already has enough problems winning the support of the religious Right without risking alienating them over something that isn't likely even to come up this fall. The Democratic finalists, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, aren't really talking about it either, although they and a majority of Jewish voters in their base have told pollsters they would support a more activist US role in pursuing peace. But neither feels inclined to publicly back the vision of a president they doubt is really serious, nor are they inclined to inject the issue into the campaigns unless forced, and there's no sign of that. It's a no-win situation, said a Democratic operative. Clinton and Obama are being swift-boated from the rejectionist Right trying to label them anti-Israel or worse, and they're not looking to draw any more fire. A Democratic president might be more disposed than McCain to pursue Bush's vision, albeit under a different imprimatur. A source familiar with Obama's thinking said the senator isn't expected to publish any proposals before November but would be developing a plan that "might not look different in description from Bush's approach but very different in implementation." All three leading candidates have said the right things and have the voting records and endorsements to attest to their pro-Israel bonafides, notwithstanding the smear campaigns being waged by some extremists, especially in the Jewish community. The next president will need six months or more to get a national security team in place, and to develop a Mideast peace policy. By then there could be new leaders in Israel and the Palestinian Authority less interested in making peace, plus wars on two fronts. Hizbullah, with backing of its Syrian and Iranian mentors, is threatening another round of fighting, and the constant rocket barrages from Gaza could provoke major Israeli military action. Meanwhile peace talks meander along. More and more, it looks like George W. Bush's decision to pursue a more active US peacemaking role was just for show - like so much of his administration. And that could compound the tragedy of an administration that has added to worldwide doubts about America's intentions by promising so much and delivering so little.