Previewing US President Bush’s Middle East Visit
Jan 8, 2008 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
January 8, 2008
US President George W. Bush will begin a 9-day Middle East tour on Wednesday, starting with his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as president. This Update focuses on the goals and potential significance of that visit.
- An American turned al-Qaeda leader warns Bush in advance of his trip, and exhorts al-Qaeda followers to greet Bush “with bombs and traps”.
- Meanwhile, Hamas dismissed Bush’s visit as merely a
“photo op”, saying he is not welcome in the Middle East.
Jerusalem Post, Jan. 6, 2008
On January 9, President George W. Bush is scheduled to make his first visit to Israel since taking office in 2001, and while he will get a warm reception, it will be mixed with the impact of tensions in the relationship. In particular, the “December surprise,” resulting from the publication of the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) summary report on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, reminded Israelis of the limits of American security guarantees and strategic cooperation.
Other sources of stress come from differences over renewed efforts to forge an agreement with the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and, in this context, the status of the Israeli anti-terror measures.
In addition, the overall decline of US influence, as reflected in Iraq, the return of Russia as a world power, the chaos in Pakistan, and other developments are forcing Israeli security planners to review the degree of security dependence on Washington.
For Israel, the Iranian nuclear weapons program is the most acute strategic threat, and the sudden shift in US policy as reflected in the NIE report – of which only a summary was declassified – was a major shock. The summary, and the subsequent headlines, declared: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
While a footnote and subsequent paragraphs explained that this assessment was limited to only one aspect of the Iranian program – “weaponization” – and that the other more important aspects, including uranium enrichment, were continuing, the headline took the urgency, and the justification, out of the US-led coalition on Iran.
THESE developments abruptly ended 15 years of Israeli policy based on working with the international coalition to pressure Iran to drop its nuclear weapons program through sanctions and the threat of military action, if necessary. Within two weeks following publication of the NIE report, the momentum of the sanctions regime, built up slowly over recent years, was suddenly reversed. In short order, China and Malaysia signed contracts on energy development and supply with Iran, and Russia, which had withheld the fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear reactor for at least one year, quickly dispatched two shipments.
In parallel, the leaders of the Sunni Arab component of the coalition to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state also concluded that the US had changed course. Egypt moved to improve relations with Iran, and Saudi Arabia welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Mecca for the haj.
THE THREAT of a US-led military attack on Iranian nuclear installations had become extremely unlikely. This was perhaps the main purpose of the officials who wrote the published summary – to make it all but impossible for President Bush to order an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the last year of his administration.
Despite the central importance of these issues, the years of strategic coordination meetings, and the repeated American assurances, Israeli policy-makers were apparently not consulted on the decision to release the NIE report, the timing, or the very contentious wording. Israel could do nothing as the US crippled these two primary sources of pressure, which had contributed to the Iranian decision to close (or hide) the blatant aspects of nuclear weapons development in 2003.
As a result, although President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and others have put Palestinian-Israel peace efforts after the Annapolis meeting on the top of their agenda for this trip, the primary Israeli issue is Iran. On his way to the US at the end of November, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explained the logic of the “Annapolis process” in terms of the coalition to stop Iran, and the need to involve the Saudis and other Arab states in this coalition by demonstrating movement and hope on the Palestinian track. But two weeks after Annapolis, with the release of the NIE report, this rationale became irrelevant.
WITHOUT a serious prospect of stopping Iran through sanctions or US-led military action, the basis for changes in Israeli policy that involve security risks in order to help the Palestinian Authority also becomes less compelling. In anticipation of pressure on Israel to ease movement for Palestinians as part of the massive economic development plan, and Secretary of State Rice’s statements that echo traditional Arab and European emphasis on Palestinian victimization, Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared that Israel cannot – and will not – remove checkpoints that are vital to preventing Palestinian terrorism.
The murder of two Israelis at the end of December by Fatah gunmen, connected with the same security forces that are armed and trained as part of the Annapolis framework promoting Palestinian statehood, was a stark reminder of the risks involved for Israel, and the policy differences with the US.
=46OR THESE reasons, proposals that the Bush visit be accompanied by discussions of a US-Israel defense treaty are unrealistic. A treaty would limit Israel’s freedom of action, and while the assistance provided by the US for 40 years may be unprecedented, it cannot substitute for an independent Israeli military capability when vital interests are at stake.
The political maneuvering in Washington that apparently led to the wording of the NIE, and the differences emerging over the relaxing of security measures related to hopes for a breakthrough in negotiations with the Palestinians, are pointed reminders of the limits of even the closest of alliances between sovereign nations.
In just 45 days between November 2007 and January 2008, President Bush will not only have played host at Annapolis to the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships but will have also enjoyed their hospitality over three days in Jerusalem and the West Bank. In the interim, his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has appointed a new Special Envoy for Middle East Security, General James Jones, to handle the complex security challenges of a durable Israeli-Palestinian agreement[i], and played a leading role in the international donors conference in Paris.[ii] This series of diplomatic overtures represent the some of the most visible developments to have been advanced by George W. Bush’s White House since he took office in January 2001, and are the source of a renewed public discourse about the fate of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But to what extent will Bush’s visit serve to follow up the modest achievements reached in Maryland, and just how significant is his imminent tour of the region for Israel at this juncture?
Seven years on…
George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001 after having witnessed his predecessor Bill Clinton’s ultimate failure, for all his immense efforts, to broker a peace accord at Camp David, and in the midst of what had shortly thereafter degenerated into the Second Intifada. U.S. policy remained markedly disengaged and remarkably haphazard in the face of violent and escalating daily conflict, which then-secretary of state Colin Powell maintained was essentially for the parties themselves to resolve. 9/11, which globalised the phenomenon of Islamist radicalism, followed by a strategic suicide bombing campaign in which a packed Tel Aviv bar and Jerusalem shopping mall were blown up, naturally forced the Bush administration to intensify its role. Publication of the Quartet’s Road Map in April 2003 notwithstanding, the White House soon despaired at Yasser Arafat’s lack of genuine tenacity to counter Palestinian terror. Not until after Arafat’s death and Israel’s subsequent unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 did the U.S. gradually begin to re-establish a facilitating role in a peace dialogue between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.[iii]
It might therefore be assumed that Bush’s visit to Israel this week marks a screeching gear change in the final lap of a presidency in which his manoeuvring on Israel/Palestine has been conspicuously steered from the back seat throughout his two-term tenure. Yet despite the tendency for White House incumbents to focus on foreign policy as they enter the lame-duck phase of their presidential tenure, Bush has not performed a bizarre policy u-turn after seven years of relative inertia.
Just as broader strategic considerations led to previous attempts to engage the Palestinian-Israeli situation, this is equally the case with the forthcoming nine-day visit, the bulk of which, notably, will be spent bolstering U.S. allies in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.[iv] A ‘spontaneous’ call on Iraq would also not be a huge surprise.
Iran will dominate the agenda
Whilst Baghdad’s future will be discussed across the region, the primary issue on the table – both in the Gulf and Israel – is Iran.[v] The U.S. president will be warmly received by the Arab oil emirates who are concerned about Iran’s increasing regional influence and muscle-flexing. Israel is keen to undo damage done by the November 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which, though its findings were initially misinterpreted by many, worryingly confirms that Iran is trying to master the nuclear enrichment process, at a level beyond that which would be necessary for producing electricity. Israel simply cannot afford to allow policy to wither on a matter of an existential threat. As a danger to global stability, sustained diplomatic isolation of Iran in spite of damage caused by the NIE report is a shared objective both of Israel and the White House.
As such, President Bush will be using his visit to reiterate his concerns about Iranian intentions and to set minds at rest that U.S. policy towards Tehran will remain unchanged so long as Iran continues to enrich uranium. Furthermore, shoring up regional support in the Arab world, in order to be properly prepared for a potential future showdown with Iran if it fails to accede to UN demands, is at the heart of Bush’s mission.[vi]
Annapolis as catalyst, but the schism persists
In addition to tackling Iran, Bush, flanked by Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, will attempt to provide momentum for the Joint Understanding to which Israel and the Palestinians subscribed at Annapolis, which provided for the launching of immediate negotiations in an effort to conclude a two-state peace agreement before the end of 2008.[vii] In that light, it is hoped that a visit from the world’s most powerful leader will help reinvigorate bilateral talks.
No real bilateral developments have occurred since Annapolis. That no trilateral meeting is scheduled between Bush, Olmert and Abbas implies that the Americans are not going to be rolling up their sleeves to get bogged down in arbitration on borders or refugees.[viii] Nonetheless, isolated Hamas officials in Gaza are mistaken to dismiss the visit as nothing more than a “photo opportunity.”[ix] Air Force One’s arrival will shine the international media spotlight on peace talks once again, and President Bush will try to generate momentum through his words of support and show of solidarity with Olmert and Abbas.
This impetus is required. Whilst a stagnant month is immaterial in the trajectory of this perennial conflict, it is less inconsequential in the scheme of the current talks, whose shelf life effectively expires when Bush vacates the Oval Office.[x] Moreover, events on the ground, which the parties are trying to traverse without being overshadowed by them, have – perhaps inevitably – frustrated substantive progress.
The spanners being thrown in the works are not unfamiliar. The “Har Homa crisis”[xi] sparked by plans to build new housing in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood has enabled the Palestinians to generate pressure on Olmert concerning Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line. It also led President Bush to admit last week that settlement expansion is an “impediment” to the success of the revived peace efforts.[xii] On the other hand, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s own admission that Palestinian security forces are incapable at present of providing a viable security partnership is consistent with senior Israeli military analysis which contends that only due to the IDF’s presence has the West Bank not fallen, like Gaza, into Hamas control.[xiii] The shooting of two off-duty Israeli soldiers by members of the PA security forces last week has underscored that failure.[xiv]
The expansion of Jewish settlements is conveyed as being as rudimentary a problem to the Palestinians as are security concerns to the Israelis, although it is no secret that a future final status accord will likely incorporate some of the larger settlement blocs within Israel in exchange for other territory. President Bush also alluded to the April 2004 communiqu=E9 he sent to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, stating that the reality on the ground will influence the determining of final borders.[xv] Analysts are suggesting that during Bush’s visit, Olmert may commit to more stringent supervision of construction within the Palestinian territories in exchange for recognition by the U.S. of Israel’s security demands, which include freedom of military action in the West Bank during negotiations and security oversight of a future Palestinian state, including airspace and at borders.[xvi]
Peace and stability in the region
The third significant area in which Bush’s efforts will be concentrated throughout his tour will be in maximising whatever broader regional support and stability can be extrapolated from Annapolis.[xvii]
In his meetings in the Gulf and in Sharm el-Sheikh, the U.S. will seek to harness a deeper, regional commitment to Tony Blair’s project of strengthening Palestinian institutions that will provide economic and political security to a future Palestinian state. Bush is set to accompany Blair on a tour of the initiatives he is heading up in the West Bank. Arab support for the economic and political tracks of Israel-Palestinian negotiations, and for relations between Israel and the Arab world at large, will therefore also figure on the president’s to-do list.[xviii]
Tick tock, tick tock…
Such a lightning visit cannot possibly overcome the challenges that lie ahead for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve following Bush’s departure. Simply, elbow grease and determination will be required of the two parties. As Israel’s strongest ally, it is thought that any of the prospective candidates to supersede Bush will mediate if required. Yet this president is mindful of his own clock ticking. If a framework agreement on permanent status issues which is ultimately implemented after his departure from the Oval Office can at least be drawn up by the end of the year, George W. Bush would earn a place in Middle East history not only for the Iraq war but also for his part in orchestrating enduring political conciliation that was initiated on his watch.
[i] ‘Announcement of General James Jones as Special Envoy for Middle East Security’, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Department of State, 28 November 2007.
[ii] ‘Remarks at the Palestinian Donors Conference’, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Department of State, 17 December 2007.
[iii] Freedman, R. O. (2005), ‘The Bush Administration and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Record of its First Four Years’, The Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9: 1 (4), Gloria Centre: IDC, Herzliya.
[iv] ‘Israel, PA to form special committee to tackle core issues’, Barak Ravid, Haaretz, 6 January 2008.
[v] ‘Bush to propose ME plan to combat Iran’, Mark Weiss, The Jerusalem Post/AP, 6 January 2008.
[vi] ‘Bush: Take down the outposts’, Jerusalem Post, 3 January 2008.
[vii] ‘Bush to make first presidential visit to Israel’, Ewen McAskill, The Guardian, 20 December 2007.
[viii] ‘A friend to Olmert indeed’, Aluf Benn, Haaretz, 6 January 2008.
[ix] ‘Hamas dismisses Bush Mideast visit as “photo op”‘, Reuters, 5 January 2008.
[x] ‘Editor’s Notes: The asymmetry confronting Bush’, David Horovitz, The Jerusalem Post, 3 January 2008; ‘Meetings of the minds’, Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz, 4 January 2008.
[xi] ‘The Har Homa test’, Akiva Eldar, Haaretz, undated.
[xii] ‘Bush: Expansion of settlements hindering peace talks’, YNet News, 4 January 2008.
[xiii] ‘Editor’s Notes: The asymmetry confronting Bush’, David Horovitz, The Jerusalem Post, 3 January 2008.
[xiv] ‘Israeli soldiers slain hiking in West Bank’, Ken Ellingwood, Baltimore Sun, 29 December 2007; ‘Hikers killed in West Bank shooting were soldiers on leave’, Efrat Weiss, YNet News, 28 December 2007.
[xv] ‘President W. Bush’s letter to PM, Ariel Sharon’, Israel Prime Minister’s Office, 14 April 2004.
[xvi] ‘Israel Seeks Understanding With Bush Over Its Security’, Mohammed Mar’i, Arab News, 4 January 2008.
[xvii] ‘Bush: Expansion of settlements hindering peace talks’, YNet News, 4 January 2008.
[xviii] ‘Meetings of the minds’, Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz, 4 January 2008.
[xix] ‘Analysis: Saving himself, and Olmert?’, Herb Keinon, The Jerusalem Post, 3 January 2008.
[xx] ‘Analysis: Saving himself, and Olmert?’, Herb Keinon, The Jerusalem Post, 3 January 2008.
[xxi] ‘Now’s not the time’, Aluf Benn, Haaretz, 3 January 2008; ‘The cupboard is bare’, Yoel Marcus, Haaretz, 4 January 2008; ‘Lieberman threatens to leave gov’t if core issues discussed’, The Jerusalem Post, 6 January 2008; ‘Israel offers settlement concessions ahead of Bush visit: report’, Yahoo News, 28 December 2008; ‘Nudged by Bush, Israel Talks of Removing Illegal Outposts’, Steven Erlanger, The New York Times, 5 January 2008; ‘Prime Minister to promise Bush: We’ll deal with W. Bank outposts’, Barak Ravid and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 7 January 2008.
Jerusalem Post, Jan. 6, 2008
What should President George W. Bush, currently visiting the Middle East, expect to achieve during his last year in office, even as the American people choose his successor?
The answer could not possibly be objectively clearer, yet subjectively more obscure. The gap between the real Middle East versus how it is perceived by all too many people in Washington and in the academic-journalistic elite is far too wide.
Three quick examples are useful to underline this point: First, the Annapolis summit was hailed throughout America and the West as a big success. In the region, however, less than one-fifth of Israelis and Palestinians thought it had done any good. People here knew better.
Second, many in the US have hailed what seems to be a de-escalation of American pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue. The response by Gulf Arab states, though, has been to conclude that America is weak and retreating, followed by their escalated efforts to make their own appeasement deal with Teheran.
Third, the same is true for Syria, where American efforts at conciliation have emboldened Damascus and demoralized the Lebanese moderates resisting Syrian domination.
- Don’t promise to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict in 2008. It isn’t going to happen, and these words will be used to ridicule you in 2009. Over-promising doesn’t build confidence but makes the radicals more eager to sabotage you and the moderates more passive, letting you do all the work.
- Use the leverage you have with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah to press them toward changing their ways. Giving billions of dollars with no strings attached is a formula not only for wasting the money, but for ensuring that the PA is thrown out by Hamas. Demand that the PA do something about stopping terror and ending incitement.
- Keep the US-Israel relationship strong. Sacrificing Israel’s defensive needs will not make anyone else in the region love you and will not make the radicals less popular or aggressive.
- Don’t fool around with the nonsensical idea that Iran and Syria can be split. The alliance benefits both too much and, after all, they think they are winning. And if you try, and fail, to manipulate those who are far better at manipulating the West, you will only persuade the next president to give up even more in exchange for nothing.
- Before you leave office, precisely because you believe that the situation in Iraq is improving, begin a transition to the next step. Give your successor the basis for continuing that strategy. If you don’t, the next president will probably be tempted to withdraw as proof of doing a better job than you did.
- Remember that Europe is not the same as it was, especially given the election of Francois Sarkozy in France, along with good cooperation with Britain and Germany. The United States can work with Europe on a tougher policy toward Syria, Iran and Hamas in a way not possible in the past.
- While, of course, your goal is to build an alliance with moderate (relative to Syria at least) Arab states, don’t ever forget that these regimes will do as little as possible to help you. And do keep in mind that it is their own survival, not the Arab-Israeli conflict, that motivates them, despite what they (or the State Department) might say.
- Whatever you do, don’t sell out Lebanon. The Lebanese government and its supporters are the most courageous and moderate regime in the Arab world today. Lebanon’s survival free of control by Iran, Syria and Hizbullah is one of the most vital US interests. And Lebanon’s fall is the worst defeat in the region you could suffer in the next year.
- Keep up your deep-seated moral conviction that it is wrong and dangerous to whitewash terrorists driven by an aggressive ideology as being misguided souls who must be won over by kindness and confidence-building measures.
- Don’t forget that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous scenario in the Middle East for US interests. Not only might Teheran use the bombs, but a nuclear-armed Iran would lead the region just as Saddam Hussein would have done if he’d kept Kuwait back in 1991.
- Finally, and ultimately most important, talk to your probable successors – and be persuasive. One of the most disheartening aspects of US foreign policy is the failure to properly transmit experience. Many people still don’t understand that your failure to intervene energetically on Arab-Israeli issues for your first term is because you saw what happened to president Bill Clinton and remembered what he told you.
Antagonism over Iraq should not be allowed to discredit the need for a strong policy that confronts extremist forces. For you, the best-case outcome would be having a legacy judged on that basis, as the president who stood up after September 11 to the challenge of a new anti-American threat. Adopting some of your enemies’ worst ideas will neither win their respect nor help the Middle East.