This week will see George Bush make his first, and almost certainly his only, major attempt to bring an end to the world's most intractable conflict. As participants gather for tomorrow's Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland, the spotlight is on the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Saudis – but the most important consideration lies closer to home: how will President Bush fare in a belated attempt to play peacemaker.
The reasons propelling the various parties to attend the conference are well known. They include the common domestic weaknesses of Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Mr Bush himself. For all three, a genuine and concerted push for peace would improve their standing at home.
For Mr Bush especially, and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, major progress in their remaining year or so in office would put a positive gloss on a "legacy" that now consists primarily of the debacle in Iraq, and the huge strategic victory the 2003 invasion presented to Iran. Indeed, Tehran's growing power in the region, feared by Israel and moderate Sunni Arab states alike, is a main reason why the gathering is taking place.
At the same time, US negotiators hope that the very number of Arab countries attending (16 in all as well as the Arab League) will be seen by Israel as an assurance that any deal with the Palestinians that does ultimately emerge from the process initiated at Annapolis will have broad Arab backing – hastening final acceptance in the region of the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
But if the moment is unusually propitious for negotiation, never have the obstacles to a peace deal been higher. It was not clear yesterday whether even a joint document would be agreed. The Saudi foreign minister is refusing to shake hands with the Israelis.
With Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians are divided. Mr Abbas speaks for only part of his people; without Hamas' backing, any deal he does strike could be meaningless. Weakened at home, Mr Olmert will have to show real courage to make concessions that will be bitterly opposed by the settler movement and his religious coalition partners.
At best, what will emerge is a declaration that both sides want a settlement, based on resolution of the familiar "final status" issues: Israeli settlements and the borders between the states, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem.
But not only are these issues are as divisive and intractable as ever. They are at the mercy of small, more immediate, disputes. What, for instance, precisely constitutes a freeze on settlements, which Mr Olmert may announce this week in general terms? If such problems are ever ironed out, it can only be with the unremitting involvement of the US. That in turn will become clear not at Annapolis, but in the weeks and months of painstaking negotiation that must follow.
Nothing in Mr Bush's foreign policy record offers great encouragement. His 'chairman of the board' managerial style consists of making bold statements and laying out broad strategy. Rejecting charges that the US has ignored the conflict, White House aides point out that he was the first President to call publicly (in mid-2002) for an independent Palestinian state. Thereafter however, he confided after his one direct foray into Middle East peace-making – the unproductive 'Red Sea Summit' between Mr Abbas and Ariel Sharon, Mr Olmert's predecessor, in June 2003 – he saw his job as "riding herd" on the process, without sinking into a Clintonian morass of detail. Alas, in the Middle East, the devil all too often is in the detail.
Thus Mr Bush needs to throw his weight behind the new peace efforts; not just through the intermediary of Ms Rice, however close to him she is, but personally – and constantly. Follow-through has never been his strength, be it in the absence of planning for post-invasion Iraq, or in the failure to make sure the proper aid was reaching New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Second, many doubt he will put enough pressure on the Israelis to make the painful concessions needed for a settlement to be credible in the eyes of the Palestinians. Mr Bush may be the most instinctively pro-Israeli President ever (though he has yet to visit Israel in his near-seven years in office). Those inclinations have only been reinforced by the 'war on terror'.
Soon after the September 11 attacks, Mr Sharon convinced him that Palestinian attacks on Israel were part and parcel of the global struggle with militant radical Islam. As a result, the onus hitherto has always been on the Palestinians to show progress on security, before anything was required of Israel.
Making matters worse was Mr Bush's lack of knowledge and sense of history. Flynt Everett, once the top adviser to Ms Rice on Middle East matters, but now a strong critic of the President, last week related how at a 2002 meeting in the White House situation room, he heard Mr Bush say that as soon as the Palestinians had a democratically elected government, their leadership would be "less hung-up" on issues like borders and the status of Jerusalem.
Mr Everett was astounded. It was, he told the Washington Post last week, "one of the most profoundly ignorant statements anyone has ever uttered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Belatedly, the Bush mindset seems to be changing. Moreover Ms Rice, who has visited the region repeatedly to urge a visible 'horizon,' not empty promises, for Palestinian aspirations, has more clout in the Oval Office than her hapless predecessor Colin Powell, whose efforts to push Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts were always thwarted by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Mr Rumsfeld may be gone, the vice-President remains, even more unpopular than his boss, but still vastly influential.Reuse content