Bush Peace Confab a Swan Dive or Belly Flop?

This past summer, President George W. Bush extended a hand where he never has before, calling for a Middle East conference to find a solution to the long-moribund Palestinian-Israeli peace process. This time, says U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, her boss expects results.

Yet as with most of Washington’s diplomatic overtures to the region over the last seven years, Bush’s recent demands for a "viable Palestinian state" – which critics argue simply aim to spit-shine an already tarnished presidential legacy – may crumble under the weight of stark realities on the ground.

Division of the Palestinian territories appears to be hardening. Israel on Wednesday declared the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip an "enemy entity" and said it would cut back power and fuel supplies to the economically strangled territory, a move that drew condemnation from Hamas as well as from U.S.-supported Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Islamist group Hamas, which won parliament elections in 2005 only to be isolated by the West, violently seized control of Gaza in June and has been locked in a power struggle with Abbas’s Fatah group, which controls the West Bank.

Israel’s recent foray into Syria – which the U.S. seems eager to link to a Syrian-North Korean nuclear venture – has further fanned the flames of regional conflict. This week’s assassination of anti-Syrian Christian lawmaker Antonie Ghanem in Beirut raises political tensions in Lebanon just ahead of the country’s scheduled presidential elections.

Amidst this, Bush plans to lift the curtain on his swan-song diplomatic venture with a familiar cast of regional characters (heroes and villains, moderates and extremists) assembled in the wings. On one side, the affable Abbas, as well as other "moderate" Arab leaders who, according to Bush, "can show themselves to be the equals of peacemakers like [former Egyptian leader] Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan."

On the other, the "forces of radicalism and violence": Hamas, Syria, and Iran.

For much of his presidency, Bush has avoided direct engagement in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and has refused to press Israel to dismantle settlements in the West Bank. He has rarely met with Palestinian counterparts to discuss a future Palestinian state. And while Bush may view the isolation of Hamas, and the more than one million Palestinians who live in Gaza, as the "window of opportunity" to push for a substantive peace deal, many analysts believe the effort is doomed as long as Washington continues to ignore the region’s key players.

"In the real world you can’t isolate things in their own free-floating bubble. … You can’t deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue without rolling up your sleeves to deal with their neighbours," said Daniel Levy, a fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation and former Israeli peace negotiator.

"Thus far, you still see engagement that is driven by what a predetermined ideological dogma tells you should do, rather than engaging with the reality on the ground, and trying to deliver a desirable outcome on that basis," he told IPS.

To be sure, the Manichean rhetoric of the Bush administration’s "war on terror" resonates loudly, and experts fear it may derail any attempt at meaningful negotiations.

"The problem with Bush’s approach," wrote Rami Khouri in a July Op-Ed for the Agence Global syndication agency, "is his tendency to mix up the specifics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the intra-Palestinian political feud with his ‘global war on terror.’" "He is understandably obsessed with the real terror threat, but he should not let it totally cloud his ability to think rationally about the causes and solutions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are very different issues," wrote Khouri. Regardless, the actual goals of the November peace conference remain ambiguous at best.

In a press conference with Abbas in Ramallah earlier this week, Rice discussed finding "a common set of principles" toward a "political horizon," to "support and advance the negotiations" along the "bi-lateral track."

It is precisely this vagueness that appears to be driving regional actors to distraction. "The conference should not be just one of those meetings for a handshake and a final communique that reflects general positions. We need specifics," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told Reuters at his Cairo headquarters earlier this week. "This time if it is only gimmicks, we are not interested." Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, reiterated his country’s position to reporters last week that the conference must address the four big "final status" issues: the fate of Palestinian refugees; the status of Jerusalem; the borders of a Palestinian state; and the dismantling of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

"If this conference will not discuss serious topics aimed to resolve the conflict, put Arab initiative as a key objective, set an agenda that details issues as required and oblige Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, this conference will not have any objective and will turn into protracted negotiations," he said.

Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned on Friday that if Bush’s proposed peace conference fails, extremists among the Palestinians would be emboldened.

Events in the Palestinian territories belie any notion of positive traction.

Political and economic isolation continues to choke Gaza. The territory’s private sector has collapsed, with Palestinian business unable to import necessary parts or export goods. Some 70,000 workers in the private sector have lost their jobs since June and unemployment rates are increasing; 85 percent of factories are shut or operating at less than 20 percent capacity, according a report in the New York Times.

In the West Bank, ostensible "friendly" territory, the number of roadblocks has reached 572, an increase of 52 percent from Aug 2005, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Analysts such as Levy believe that the Israeli leadership would genuinely like to move forward on a negotiation, but would do so at a pace that is convenient politically and domestically, a process that would not give the necessary traction make it a useful event in the region. "It looks like diplomacy on tranquilizers, but it should be diplomacy on steroids," he told IPS. The most notable previous Middle East peace conference was a regional meeting held in Madrid in 1991 under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union and of the United States during the administration of Bush’s father, the former President George H. W. Bush.

It remains to be seen what Bush Jr. hopes to accomplish this November. After introducing the plan in July, he has been noticeably absent from the process, and the spotlight has fallen exclusively on Rice.

Will the tandem orchestrate a graceful swan dive and redeem the Bush administration’s sinking Middle East policy, or will they – as they have many times before – belly-flop?