Bush needs clarity to confront the challenges ahead

The forthcoming visit by US President George W. Bush to Israel and Palestine is a significant event and reflects Washington’s serious intention to help change the miserable situation here. The question, however, is: can he make a difference?

The intervening period since the Annapolis conference has unfortunately confirmed the skeptic’s analysis of that event. The continued and illegal Jewish settlement expansions have poisoned the atmosphere and created tension that has paralyzed the bilateral negotiations, the one significant outcome of Annapolis.

Meanwhile, the last two weeks have also witnessed a massive escalation in Gaza, which has suffered the highest level of casualties in recent times. Even in the West Bank– where the Palestinian Authority has been trying to fulfill some of its obligations under the roadmap, notably in terms of improving security, the prime example being the successful law and order enforcement campaign in Nablus–we have seen an increase in unnecessary Israeli military incursions accompanied by sweeping arrest campaigns and material destruction.

These developments have undermined the already shaky credibility of the PA in the eyes of the Palestinian people and caused the normally restrained Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to issue an angry statement accusing Israel of trying to undermine recent achievements of the Palestinian government on the economic and security fronts. For his part, President Mahmoud Abbas attacked the Israeli practices at a recent rally to commemorate Fateh’s anniversary, and warned that they threatened to derail the recently reactivated political process. Indeed, a campaign against the PA’s participation in negotiations with Israel as long as settlement expansions continue is gaining momentum.

This is the context to which Bush arrives. It places on him an additional burden that goes beyond simply encouraging the two sides to proceed with the negotiations that Annapolis launched. The American president will be faced with a number of major challenges that he has to address with clarity, at least behind closed doors.

One of these challenges is the Gaza situation. There, the American-encouraged Israeli -enforced economic sanctions against the impoverished Strip have failed to achieve their objective of bringing to an end Hamas control. The consequent split between Gaza and the West Bank persists and undermines the legitimacy of the PA. Part of this challenge includes resolving tensions at the Gaza-Egypt border.

The second major challenge is Israeli settlement expansions that, if continued, will unquestionably sabotage the already fragile bilateral negotiations and further discredit and weaken the PA. If expansions end, furthermore, the hostile reaction in Israel could irreparably damage Israeli PM Ehud Olmert’s coalition government.

The third challenge that Bush has to deal with is the reluctance of the Israeli leadership to engage in negotiating core final status issues. The conclusion Palestinian negotiators have reached is that while the Israeli leadership is interested in, and benefits from, being party to a political process, Israel’s domestic constraints seem not to allow Israeli negotiators to engage on controversial issues, leaving the whole exercise moot.

Bush has two possible approaches open to him. First, he can face these challenges head on and try to support both leaderships by encouraging them to face down their domestic skeptics, and help provide them with tangible achievements and progress in the peace process. American support will meanwhile compensate for domestic challenges.

Alternatively, he might take the Annapolis approach and shirk the very real differences between the two sides, lapsing instead into generalities to give an impression of seriousness and manage public opinion rather than move toward real change.

This latter approach is the most likely pursued by an American administration whose Middle East policies are usually limited by Israeli positions. But this will unfortunately lead, sooner or later, to a further deterioration. This will result from the continuing violent escalation in Gaza and a probable explosion in the West Bank as a result of Israel’s settlement policies and the frequent Israeli incursions into Palestinian populated areas, still separated by an ever-growing number of roadblocks and checkpoints.