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Bush's Faith-Based Middle Eastern Policy By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, January 14, 2008


President Bush has long been known for his faith-based initiatives. But it wasn’t fully clear until his trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank last week that his Middle East policy is one of them.

It would be difficult to find a better example of the profound unreality of the president’s vision than his confident assertion that a final peace settlement Israel and the Palestinians could be achieved by the time he leaves office in January of 2009. In Bush’s judgment, a final settlement within one year is “not only possible, I believe it's going to happen.” That settles that.

Or does it? Unpromisingly for Bush’s optimistic timeline, troubling signs abound in the Palestinian territories. Foremost among them is the fact that Palestinian society, including the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, remains viscerally anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist. Palestinian schoolbooks, when they acknowledge Israel’s existence at all, continue to cast it as an enemy to be destroyed rather than a neighbor to be negotiated with. Likewise, Palestinian media, including the television networks under Abbas’ direct control, persist in glorifying suicide terrorism. Official maps used by the Palestinian Authority omit all mention of Israel. Abbas, the purportedly “moderate” alternative to the ultras of Hamas, adamantly refuses to recognize Israel as an ethnically Jewish state. Even allowing that good diplomacy benefits from a little imagination, for President Bush to interpret this bleak Palestinian landscape as fertile ground for peacemaking is to surrender completely to fantasy.

Then there is the matter of Gaza. To his credit, the president at least seems to recognize that a full-fledged Palestinian terror state complicates the possibility of peace. Even here, though, he seems unable to grasp the full implications of “Hamastan.” Speaking in Ramallah last week, Bush presented Palestinians with the following choice: “Do you want a future based upon a democratic state? Or do you want the same old stuff?” In other words, Palestinians must choose between democracy and terrorism.

Bush’s blunder is in thinking the choices mutually exclusive. In reality, as the popular election of Hamas in 2006 showed, Palestinians are ready to embrace the democratic process. Yet they do so knowing full well that it is a means to the end of empowering Islamists who will wage exterminatory war against Israel. Unpleasant though the fact may be for Bush to contemplate, Palestinians have seen the democratic future -- and its name is Hamas.

How then to account for Bush’s resolute belief that a final settlement can be realized in 2008? Last week, the president answered that question this way: “The reason I believe that is because I hear the urgency in the voice of both the Prime Minister of Israel, and the President of the Palestinian authority.”

The first thing to be said about this statement is how eerily it echoes Bush’s justly scorned remark, in the early days of his presidency, that he had peered into the “soul” of Vladimir Putin and glimpsed an ally. If that didn’t exactly recommended the president’s ability to judge character, his recent forays into soul-reading are no more impressive.

Take Abbas. Even if the Palestinian leader sincerely was interested in ending Palestinian terrorism -- by no means a certainty, given that his Fatah organization retains its ties to anti-Israel terrorist groups and operatives -- he is clearly outgunned in Gaza, where Fatah forces have been routed decisively by Hamas.

Any sensible American policy toward the Palestinians should take into account the glaring flaws of their leadership. It was unfortunate in this context that President Bush, in a bit of misguided pandering designed to bolster Abbas, made a point of condemning Israel’s “occupation” of parts of the West Bank. Beyond slighting Israel’s legitimate historical claims to parts of the West Bank, which was captured during the 1967 war of self-defense in which Israel defeated Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, the inflammatory term ignores the destructive consequences of removing what is by far the most effective check on Palestinian extremism in Israel’s military presence.

If there is ample reason to doubt the Palestinians’ commitment to peace, it is also the case that Israel, for very different reasons, is in no hurry to see a settlement. Although Israeli spokesmen agreed with Bush last week that the “current status quo is far from desirable,” they pointedly declined to say that further negotiations, let alone the expedited creation of a Palestinian state, were the desired solution. Just about the only party with the sense of “urgency” felt by the president is the president himself.

In fairness, the president’s trip was not a complete disaster. In an important gesture, he gave his backing to Israeli counterterrorism raids into Gaza, thus reaffirming a U.S. commitment to Israeli security that had been uncertain in the aftermath of the Annapolis summit. As well, Bush expressed his approval of settlements in Jerusalem, confirming the reality that Jerusalem is a majority-Jewish city. In doing so, he directly contradicted Condoleezza Rice’s earlier statement that the “United States doesn't make a distinction” between settlement activity in Jerusalem and the outposts of the West Bank. It was one of the rare times in Bush’s disappointing second term that the State Department failed to get its way.

In the end, however, the most notable aspect of the president’s trip was its futility. "I'm on a timetable," Bush told reporters. "I've got 12 months." That is indeed the case, but the beginning of wisdom in the Middle East is to make the policy correspond to the reality, not vice versa. For all of Bush’s enthusiasm, the notion that a conflict stretching into sixty years can be settled in the one that remains of his presidency is self-delusion on a spectacular scale. Which is why, by the time all the speeches had been delivered and all the hands shaken, Bush’s trip achieved all that reasonably could have been expected: almost nothing.


Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com


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