Comment: Two presidents, one vision

Bush and Peres this week set out their dreams for the Middle East. It could be a bumpy ride.

peres bush 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
peres bush 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
I have a shameful confession (or two). First, I can't ride a bicycle. Second, I'm hopelessly addicted to the Tour de France. Strangely, I never learned to balance on a bike without trainer wheels as a child. But some of my best childhood memories are of summer vacations across the English Channel following the progress of the wonderful bicycle competition surrounded by the beautiful French countryside. And I agree with the H.G. Wells quote, "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race." I was just settling down on the sofa the other day to watch a review of a particularly challenging section of the Tour de France, as cyclists reached new levels of endurance in the Alps, when Israel Television dramatically cut into the broadcast for a news flash and breaking story. I was relieved to find the "news" was only the address by President Bush. There had not been some heinous terror attack. War hadn't broken out. In fact, even classifying the speech as "news" was poetic license. There was not much original content in the speech and barely a shift in nuance. The names had changed but this was just an echo of the "dramatic" policy speech delivered by the US president some five years ago when he determined - long after the majority of the Israeli government and public - that Yasser Arafat was not a partner for peace. To describe the Bush address as groundbreaking would be as unreasonable as portraying Shimon Peres's presidential inauguration speech as sensational. Both have a vision. Both want to see peace in the Middle East. Both would like that peace to be attributed to them in the history books, rather than a failed war in Iraq in the case of the former and a failed peace created in Oslo in the case of the latter. I dutifully listened to Bush's plan for an international parley in September (for this you interrupted my summer viewing pleasure?), the call to stop settlement expansion, and the plea to the Palestinians to choose between moderates (Mahmoud Abbas) and extremists (Hamas). Peres at the beginning of the week had made similar comments proving at the outset of his term in office that he could be the "president of all" by angering settlers one day and the Left the next, when he attended the memorial ceremony for Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the nemesis of his mentor David Ben-Gurion. The cyclists making their painful way up the winding roads of the Alps (without me egging them on from the comfort of my living room) clearly faced an easier task than Bush. Theirs was an uphill battle to be sure, but the cyclists could be fairly sure of cruising down the other side, whereas Bush - even if he safely reaches the giddy heights of another peace summit - is likely to come bumping down the same path he has just traveled, with all the grace of a presidential Sisyphus. Bush and Peres actually shared several themes, both calling for the development of the Negev and Galilee instead of the settlements. Peres also sounded strangely Al Gore-like stressing his green dreams. These were quite out of tune with what I remember when I was both Knesset and environmental affairs reporter (I called it my "MKs and other animals" beat) and I studied up close the environmental implications of Peres's Jordan Gateway industrial park project along the banks of one of the world's most romanticized rivers. Peres, however, despite his great age, seems to be set on leaving his mark as president, having given up on his long-held dream of becoming prime minister. And he has at long last broken that "loser's" title. No such luck for Bush. One could get carried away imagining the old pals' conversations between Bush, at a stunning low in the polls; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (assuming he manages to stay in power long enough to reach the planned September summit); Tony Blair, bouncing back into the power players' picture as Quartet envoy having just been basically ousted as British premier; and Palestinian president Abbas, who has reached such a nadir of popularity among the people he is meant to represent that he can't even physically venture into half the Palestinian territories for fear of his life. No wonder they all so desperately seek to help each other out. It is not surprising to hear Bush urge Olmert to give Abbas some security prisoners fresh from Israeli jails. Abbas certainly needs something to boost his popularity. Abbas will get the prisoners; Olmert will get US approval; Bush will get some form of diplomatic success and Blair will get exposure after a dry period ratings-wise. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post on July 15, Israel has even agreed to stop pursuing dozens of Fatah gunmen in the West Bank as part of the effort to improve Abbas's standing. But I would hazard a bet that no matter how many ex-convicts Abbas has, he's never going to build Australia with them. Bush and Blair can push Olmert into as many "gestures of goodwill" as they like but the gestures will always be just that: going through the motions. The success of the peace process depends on fundamental change. And that is as lacking in the Middle East as a comprehensive environmental protection policy. Just look at another president muscling into the picture. Syria's Bashar Assad (heaven help the pollster who gives him low ratings) delivered a speech to the parliament in Damascus on July 17 after being sworn in for a second seven-year term as president in which he half-threatened, half-promised: "The Israelis should remember that the price of peace is lower than the cost of war." No wonder the Israeli public listened to what he had to say and then studied with even greater interest the reports on the lack of preparedness regarding protecting the Israeli home front in war. The ordinary man can dream like the proudest president. I might one day learn to ride a bike. The Palestinians might one day learn to make peace. The public might one day not be taken for a ride by its leaders. And the Middle East will one day be home to a local version of the Tour de France (which despite its name this year set out from England, passing the beaches and World War II landmark of Dunkirk, and included part of Belgium). As H.G. Wells pointed out: "Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia." The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.