Bush's Middle East Visit: An 11th Hour Attempt to Make History

By Pierre Heumann in Tel Aviv

US President George W. Bush made his first trip to Israel on Wednesday in a bid to put Israelis and Palestinians on course for a peace agreement within a year. He wants to solve the 60-year-old crisis in his remaining 12 months in office. The hurdles are huge.

Air Force One landed at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport, where President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli officials waited to greet Bush, seen by many Israelis as the best friend the Jewish state has had in the White House.

A section of barbwire-covered Israel's separation barrier in the Jerusalem suburb Abu Dis: Will the barriers soon be removed?
AP

A section of barbwire-covered Israel's separation barrier in the Jerusalem suburb Abu Dis: Will the barriers soon be removed?

Bush said last week he will encourage Israelis and Palestinians to make "tough decisions on complex questions." He will hold talks with Olmert on Wednesday and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday.

But does his peace initiative have any chance of succeeding? The only true answer is a question. What alternative can there be to attempting to bring peace to the region? But harmony can't be enforced. The mere search for reconciliation won't necessarily lead to a stable solution.

Bush wants to solve the 60-year-old Middle East problem in his 12 remaining months in office. That's why he invited the two irreconcilable opponents to the US in November to usher in a new round of peace talks. After extensive talks in Annapolis and smiles for the cameras the discussions were postponed to January.

Shortly afterwards there was another meeting and the international community was generous. The Paris donor conference yielded pledges of $7.4 billion, far more than expected, and was seen as a successful harbinger of fresh talks.

But no one knows if the money will be used to build the future state of Palestine or whether it will merely disappear into the pockets of corrupt officials, as has happened in the past.

Two Different Worlds

The world in which politicians smile at each other, in which all kinds of promises are made and donations are pledged, is merely a virtual world. Next to it stands the real life arena of terrorists, settlers and fanatics. The real and virtual worlds are totally separate -- like two parallel lines, they will only meet in eternity. That appears to make a real solution here and now impossible. A harmonious balance seems unreachable.

Grand words and noble gestures dominate the virtual stage, while aggression dominates the real world. Palestinian terror groups refuse to lay down their weapons and keep on recruiting new fanatics whose greatest wish is to die as "martyrs."

Jihadists dream of wiping out the "Zionist Unity." The radical Islamic Hamas has strengthened its position in the Gaza Strip. Rockets are fired on towns in southern Israel several times a day. Their range is big enough to reach large population centers in the south of Israel: not just Sderot, but Aschkelon and Aschdod soon as well.

Israel has also been confrontational. When the peace negotiatiations started in 1993, more than 100,000 Israelis lived in the West Bank. Today it's more than twice that number. The Israeli government has done nothing to stop the approximately 100 new mini-settlements which are legal under Israeli law. Palestinian territory is becoming increasingly fragmented.

Olmert is now preparing the Israeli population for necessary compromises. Even Israel's friends see the country's future as being within the borders of 1967 and are insisting on a division of Jerusalem, he said in an interview. But he won't consider withdrawing completely from the occupied West Bank. That would mean dissolving settlements and losing parts of East Jerusalem.

According to daily newspaper Haaretz Olmert is insisting on changes in the border to be able to keep hold of some of the settlements. And Israel would demand a Palestinian demilitarization of the West Bank as part of any agreement with the Palestinians. Israel wants Bush's blessing to demand curbs in Palestinian sovereignty, the paper wrote.

The domestic weakness of both Abbas and Olmert also make progress difficult. Following Hamas's summer coup of the Gaza Strip, Abbas only represents half the Palestinian people. And he even has trouble getting his way in the West Bank. Indeed, he lacks popularity in his own party.

Olmert is also in a difficult position. Right-wing coalition partners are already threatening to quit the government if Olmert even so much as discusses core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Olmert's left-wing junior partner, the Labor Party of Ehud Barak, could endanger the coalition too. The commission examining the government's actions during the 2006 Lebanese war is due to be published on Jan. 30. It's already clear that Olmert will get bad marks, which will weaken or perhaps even topple him.

The next elections to the Knesset may therefore come before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal has even been drafted let alone sealed. During that period Israel will be pre-occupied with itself rather than the search for peace with the Palestinians.

Pierre Heumann is the Middle East corresponent for the Swiss newsweekly Weltwoche.

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