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The First Leg of Bush’s Middle East Trip: Initial Steps in the Right Direction
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The First Leg of Bush’s Middle East Trip: Initial Steps in the Right Direction

The first leg of Bush's Middle East trip suggests he is taking steps in the right direction, writes Moran Banai.

This story is a product of Middle East Progress.

If a man were judged on words alone, we might have thought that it was the first President Bush and not his son, the sitting president, leaving Israel today and heading to the Gulf for the second leg of a Middle East trip.

President George W. Bush’s words in Jerusalem and Ramallah suggested that he at long last is beginning to connect the dots between and among the challenges facing the region and the United States.

The first three days of his visit revealed a much more pragmatic president than in previous years of his presidency. Bush spoke about the tough road ahead and the difficult choices that must be made by leaders to move forward on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. He left the door open for future direct engagement, announcing that he would be returning to Israel in May. His administration seems more focused at last on rebuilding the tattered framework of international support necessary to advance the peace process.

Bush will need to work with friends and partners in the region and throughout the world if he intends, as he says, to make sure that an agreement on a Palestinian state is reached before the end of his presidency; if he wants to revive and empower an international coalition to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapons capability that would further destabilize both the Middle East as well as India and Pakistan; and if he seeks to leverage the temporary security gains on the ground in Iraq into political progress.

So, what did Bush accomplish on this first leg of his travels in Israel and the West Bank? What follow up will be required to turn his words into reality, and what should we expect from his next stops in the Gulf and Egypt?

The main accomplishment of Bush’s trip thus far might be what happened before his plane landed in Tel Aviv. With his arrival looming, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas announced that they had developed a framework to begin addressing the core issues, a process that had stalled since their return from Annapolis in November. His visit also ensured that Olmert’s coalition would live another day as the leader of the right-wing Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), Avigdor Lieberman, promised that he would not leave the coalition during Bush’s visit.

Bush’s time in Israel and the West Bank was spent reassuring both parties that this issue was high on his agenda and that their concerns were being heard. Yet he also laid out some hard truths that were difficult for each to hear. He spoke out against settlement outposts, unauthorized even under Israeli law, but also reiterated his 2004 commitment to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that any final agreement on borders would have to make adjustments for new realities on the ground and existing major Jewish population centers in the West Bank and could not adhere rigidly to the 1949 armistice lines or UN agreements. He also noted that the Palestinian state should be the homeland for Palestinians as Israel is for the Jews, and that “we need to look to the establishment of a Palestinian state and new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue,” his clearest statement to date on the issue of refugees.

Yet, Bush also warned the Israelis that they should help, not hinder, the modernization of Palestinian security forces, a likely reference to Israeli incursions into Nablus, one of the first sites of deployment for these new forces. He also made clear that he believed a final status agreement could be reached by the end of the year, if not implemented, and that that Palestinian state would have to be contiguous—“Swiss cheese,” he said, “isn’t going to work when it comes to the outline of a state.”

Moving beyond the political negotiations, Bush made good on an American promise at Annapolis by appointing Lieutenant General William Fraser, currently an assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to monitor implementation of the “road map.” Making the road map a working document has been an ongoing challenge. Fraser joins two other generals – Jones and Dayton – who have both separately been tasked with aspects of improving the security situation in the region and for the Palestinians respectively. The surfeit of security envoys raises questions about how their tasks are defined and what lines of command, if any, have been established between and among them. Who will report to whom and how will the responsibility for security be divided among them? Who is advisory and whom operational?

These meetings, statements, and appointments will be only as valuable as President Bush’s ongoing commitment to the process and his willingness to hold both sides accountable, to nudge them along or help them overcome obstacles as necessary. Presidential visits such as this one are measured by what follows from them. Here follow-up will require an approach that constantly keeps an eye on progress on economic, political, and security fronts simultaneously, with visible indications of gains being made, even while discussions on the toughest issues – refugees, Jerusalem, final borders – continue apace, and even as, to be sure, extremist groups will work hard to scuttle every step forward.

Bush now travels onward to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where Iran, a topic discussed with Israel as well, will likely dominate the conversation. The National Intelligence Estimate released in December has set back Bush’s efforts to get the world on board with his efforts to isolate and sanction Iran, in large part due to his own administration’s belligerent rhetoric prior to its release. Also, the NIE caught most countries in the region off guard – many did not expect its conclusions, and the interpretations of the NIE’s key judgments seemed out of sync with serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear program within the region.

Whether Iran is currently developing weapons’ capabilities or simply enrichment capabilities, the specter of a nuclear Iran weighs as heavily over the Gulf as it does over the United States and Israel. And Iran’s intent is not considered benign by any of its neighbors, neither with respect to its enrichment activities, nor its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its involvement in Iraq, and its ongoing attempts to foment dissent among Shiite minorities in Arab states, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Despite the mutual concerns, Bush will find that while the Gulf States see the United States as a partner in maintaining Gulf security, they are wary of putting too many eggs in a U.S. basket. For the past year, Riyadh has been quietly working with Iran behind the scenes to find solutions to problems in Lebanon. The fact that the Gulf Cooperation Council invited Iran’s president to participate in its recent meeting, along with a series of diplomatic visits between top level Saudi and Iranian leaders throughout 2006 and 2007, indicate a willingness on the part of key actors in the region to engage in assertive diplomacy to address concerns about Iran’s actions.

Bush will also likely hear that the Saudis want not just words but actions on his part in movement toward the creation of a Palestinian state. The Saudis have moved to center stage in their involvement on this issue. King Abdullah took the lead in bringing together Arab states around the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel full normalization in return for its withdrawal to the 1967 lines, a resolution to the refugee question and the establishment of a Palestinian state, first in 2002 and again last year. He again stepped into the public spotlight to preside over the formation of a Palestinian unity government in Mecca only to be burned by Hamas’ takeover of Gaza.

The Saudis have publicly supported Abbas’ leadership ever since, yet embarrassed him by allowing pilgrims from Gaza – for whom he had arranged special exit through Israel but who had instead crossed into Egypt under Hamas’ auspices – to attend the Hajj. Nevertheless, the Annapolis meeting would very likely have been considered a failure without Saudi participation. The king likely will seek further assurances from President Bush with respect to next steps on Palestinian statehood.

Iraq will also be part of the agenda. Despite the recent declines in Iraq’s internal violence, neighboring countries remain deeply concerned about the potential spillover effects of Iraq’s internal tensions and are looking for a comprehensive strategy that helps Iraqis settle their differences over power sharing peacefully. Achieving progress on Iraq’s national reconciliation requires the engagement of all of Iraq’s neighbors because each has strong interests in the outcomes inside of Iraq.

This all adds up to a tall agenda for the remaining days of President Bush’s trip, and a long list of complicated issues to juggle as the Bush administration heads into its closing year in office. President Bush’s trip to the Middle East so far represents small steps in the right direction, but the road ahead is long and rocky.

Moran Banai is the U.S. editor of Middle East Progress.

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