This week, U.S. President George W. Bush turns his attention to the search for a comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis, flying to the Middle East as his own nation increasingly focuses on the question of who will succeed him. Like his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and his father, George H.W. Bush, the president enters his final year in office with newly minted peace negotiations under way. As he made clear in his January 5 radio address, Bush holds the view that U.S. security depends at least in part on solving the ancient enmity in the Holy Land.
Coming less than six weeks after the launch of the Annapolis peace process, much of the president’s agenda will be devoted to moving talks forward (McClatchy) between the Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have held follow-up talks aimed at advancing the Joint Understanding agreed to in November 2007 at Annapolis. Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor, says three important changes in the Middle East provide reasons for optimism—most of all, “a dramatic change in the Israeli assessment of their strategic position and their long-term interests.”
White House optimism aside, doubts proliferate. Steven Erlanger, chief Jerusalem correspondent of the New York Times, tells CFR.org in a new interview that Israelis have little faith that Bush’s trip or the Annapolis process itself will bear fruit. In the Washington Times, Chuck Freilich, a former Israel national security adviser now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, judges the prospects for the Bush trip as being so poor that “the stage is set for dark comedy.”
If achieving progress there—no sure bet—was all the mission had to accomplish, odds would be long enough. But myriad other challenges will intervene as Bush moves from Israel and the West Bank to the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. The long-term stability of U.S.-allied governments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan remain uncertain. Efforts by France and the Arab League (CSMonitor) to broker a solution to a constitutional crisis in Lebanon also remain in play, and major nonstate actors, Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda, will strain every muscle to prevent diplomatic success on Bush’s watch.
Not on the itinerary, but very much on the agenda, is Iran. In Israel, Defense Secretary Ehud Barak has been promising a session with Bush that will lay out Israel’s serious disagreements (Haaretz) with the recent shift U.S. intelligence agencies made on Iran’s nuclear program. A National Intelligence Estimate made public late last year concluded Iran suspended its effort to build a nuclear weapon in 2003.
And it is not only Israelis who question Washington’s new tack on Iran. Sunni-led Arab states worry about Iran’s rising influence in the region—its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon, its toehold in Gaza via support for Hamas, and its influence on the Shia-dominated Iraqi state. Gulf Arabs, including the Saudis, fear the recalibrated U.S. intelligence on Iran might signal Washington’s weakness (WashPost) and embolden Tehran. Iran’s future ambitions, nuclear or not, will figure prominently (Kuwait Times) in Bush’s talks with Saudi King Abdullah and with the leaders of the Gulf Emirates, too. Mark A. Heller, a national security specialist at Tel Aviv University, suggests Bush would be better off canceling his Arab visits and flying, instead, to Tehran (IHT).