Last month President Bush made two major, perhaps crucial, changes in U.S. Middle East policy, deepening America's involvement in that turbulent area. One decision involves Israel's intentions in the West Bank territories; the other is a significant shift in American policy on Iran.
When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Washington in mid-May, George Bush gave tacit endorsement to Israel's plan to proceed with completion of a security wall that separates its territory from Palestinians living in the West Bank. It also effectively seals off East Jerusalem and surrounding settlements and incorporates them into Israel.
The president left open a three year-old policy to help Palestinians establish an independent homeland, but this is contingent on Palestinian Authority (PA) willingness to negotiate a formal peace agreement with Israel.
White House support for Olmert's plan is stimulated by two key elections, one in Palestine which produced a victory for Hamas, a virulently anti-Israel party, and the other in Israel. The latter brought Olmert to power and enabled him to form a coalition government pledged to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and secure borders for Israel. Bush wants to support Olmert while undercutting Hamas' influence among Palestinians by withholding economic assistance until its leaders accept Israel as a sovereign state.
Many Israelis, perhaps Omert himself, think negotiating with a Hamas government is pointless, and that Israel should impose its own solution. This entails erecting a wall that incorporates into Israel portions of the West Bank that lie east of Jerusalem. The problem is that many Palestinians will be living inside Israel as stateless persons cut off from their land.
President Bush thinks there is still a chance that PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who does not represent Hamas, has enough authority to broker a deal that both Hamas and Israel will accept. Abbas is supported by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has good relations also with Olmert.
What are the prospects for peace in Palestine during Bush's remaining time in office?
The negative view is that Palestinian society is so fragmented by years of corrupt local government and Israeli occupation that Israel will find it impossible to reach a lasting agreement with the PA. Even if Hamas agrees to negotiations with Israel, pessimists see no chance that Palestinians would accept a deal that turns over all of Jerusalem and adjacent areas for incorporation into Israel. Olmert's answer is a security wall that includes them.
Those who remain optimistic think that Hamas will soon be so discredited because of rapidly declining economic conditions that Palestinians will support a referendum proposed by Abbas giving him authority to negotiate a peace that is supported by the major powers and includes large economic assistance.
A second major change in U.S. Middle East policy was announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,. She reported that five major states--Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China--had joined Washington in a plan to offer Iran a package of economic benefits if it suspends enriching uranium for potential use in building nuclear weapons.
Rice said the United States conditioned its offer to join the talks on Iran's willingness to halt its nuclear processing. Tehran says it will consider the six-power offer but will not accept pre-conditions for negotiations.
Speculation has been rife about why Bush reversed twenty-seven years of American policy on Iran despite strong opposition within Republican ranks. One view is that he now thinks the United States needs Iran's cooperation to help avoid a disastrous civil war in Iraq.
Some think that Britain's Tony Blair and Germany's Angela Merkel convinced Bush that he would lose the European allies if he refused to join their negotiations with Tehran. A third view is that a united front by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, has a good chance of persuading Iran to abandon its dream to be a nuclear power.
These White House initiatives, support for Israel and opening of talks with an old enemy--Iran, seem incongruent. After all, Iran's Islamic regime is vitriolic in denunciation of Israel, and it supports terrorism. Why would Bush overrule hardliners in his administration, among them reportedly Dick Cheney, on Iran, the centerpiece of his "axis of evil" speech in 2002?
The reality is that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran dominating the Persian Gulf is so dangerous that Bush could not avoid the pleas of allies to make a final effort to find a solution before he threatens serious actions against it.
The president covered his policy change on Iran by reassuring Israel and its supporters in the United States that he will stand by Israel if the Palestinians refuse to negotiate a peace agreement giving Israel secure borders. He pledged again to defend Israel if it is threatened by an outside power. Critics may not be reassured by Bush's words, but they have, for the moment, been outflanked by Condoleezza Rice and America's closest allies.
File last modified on Sunday, 20-JUN-2006 11:34 PM EST