Could the Bush factor make the difference?

The President is a man of instinct, and Middle East progress has gone further than the cynics predicted

After all the failed hopes and shattered initiatives on the road to Middle East peace, why should anyone expect different this time? President Bush's involvement is clearly one factor, and an important one considering his previous reluctance to do so. But then every US president has willingly or unwillingly been drawn into this morass, from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton by way of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senr. And all have ended up defeated by the sheer complexity of disputes and depth of mutual hatreds.

Nor could you claim it a breakthrough that Bush has a group of "moderate" Arab states to back the process. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and Egypt - the countries he fielded in Aqaba this week - are all essentially US clients regularly conjured up for these initiatives. The states that matter - Lebanon, Syria and, at one remove, Iran - were not present and are still holding their peace, or terror.

Even the placatory noises coming from a right-wing Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, though welcome, are not in themselves significantly different than on past occasions. Nearly every time Washington has got talks started it has been with ex-generals such as Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, hailed as men who had the authority of battle to sell the solution to the Israeli right - the so-called De Gaulle and Algeria scenario; and each time the hardliners have won out in the end. So far Sharon has given little ground that he wasn't always prepared to give each time talks with the Palestinians started up during the intifada

No, the real difference this time is the most obvious one. The US President is coming on this occasion, having won a war in Iraq that has removed one of Israel's greatest enemies and was waged explicitly to reshape the security map of the whole Middle East. Previous US presidents have used Egypt and Jordan to seek peace agreements. Previous presidents, most notably Bush's own father, have brought pressure on Israel. But none have been able to discuss the prospects in terms of a change in the whole region.

Which is what gives Bush Jr his opportunity but what makes it so desperately difficult to predict whether he means it or will take advantage of it. So far the political reaction has tended to proclaim and applaud the extent that the US President has gone to declare the goal of a two-state solution and to speak openly of the kinds of sacrifices that Israel will have to make to achieve it.

As Tony Blair pointedly put it in the Commons yesterday, progress has gone far further than any of the "cynics" had predicted. For cynics in the Middle East you should read "realists". Experience is always on the side of the pessimist. But the point is a perfectly valid one. If the caricature of Bush has been of a man in thrall to neo-conservatives and in league with the Israeli right, a man who has no intention of involving himself in the Middle East other than to protect Israel, then he has this week produced a surprisingly different script.

His repeated emphasis that a Palestinian state would have to be viable and that its territory would have to be "continuous" would seem to be in direct contradiction of Sharon's traditional view that any Palestinian state would be a series of separate bits that could be easily controlled and swamped by Israeli arms. So too with Bush's repeated remarks in public and in private that Israeli settlement activity would have to come to an end. You may not believe the American President, but he did not have to say these things. Nor should anyone doubt that he has put it at the front of his immediate agenda.

The trouble with Bush, however, is not that you should doubt his word. The last year has shown that what he says, from the Axis of Evil speech to his declarations of "regime change", is what he means. It is the commentators who believed that he hasn't meant them that have got it wrong. The problem is in determining where he is headed with his statements.

Just as there is a two-state end on the road-map to Middle East peace, there is a two-narrative explanation of what the US President is seeking in pursuing it

On one narrative - the interpretation adopted by Tony Blair and the British Government - Bush is a man of instinct who approaches each problem as it comes. He believes, like the neo-conservatives, that the world will be a better place, and one more secure for the US, if it were all organised into democracies. But he has no particular strategy to achieve this.

In this version of events, he concluded early on that Iraq was an enemy of the US and democracy but was prepared to adopt whatever route that seemed advisable to tackle it. It was only when alternative courses failed that he resorted to arms. Having sorted that out, he has looked to the Palestinian question as the next obstacle to Middle East peace. The object is a democratically viable Palestine living side by side with Israel, and he is prepared to put whatever pressure is necessary on Jerusalem to achieve that..

The alternative scenario starts from the same point, that Bush is essentially an instinctive player, but believes that he has bought into the whole neo-conservative agenda. On this narrative, regime change in Iraq was the necessary precursor to a fundamental restructuring of the Middle East in which Israel's security interests are seen as the same as America's and its enemies, including Iran and Syria, are categorised as America's. Invasion of Iraq was always seen as inevitable, the resort to the United Nations merely a useful short-term tactic while the troops were still being put into place.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, the primary objective is seen as removing the threats of terrorism to Israel by defanging, if not changing, the regimes in Damascus and Tehran and forcing the Palestinians to suppress their own militants - the first phase of the three-stage road-map. Far from being compelled to sign unwillingly to the first phase of the road-map, Sharon is quite prepared to accept the limited gestures required of him in withdrawing from incursions into Palestinian and dismantling the illegal settlements (mostly tent towns and trailer parks) established since 2001.

The harder concessions - dismantling the permanent settlements made since 1967, sharing Jerusalem as a capital, dismantling the security wall now being built, negotiating any return of refugees - can be safely put off. For the moment, phase one will be enough. The Palestinians aren't in a position to refuse it, and it isn't in Israel's interests to do so, while both their populations could do with a pause in the mutual terror. As for Bush, he can present it in next year's presidentials as a breakthrough. And if it all goes wrong after that, he will have done his best and done a lot to improve Israel's security.

Whether you believe in this, more cynical, interpretation of events or the more optimistic scenario depends on your view of the American President. One road leads to possible peace, the other to a process that will fail once the presidentials get under way and the process is supposed to move to the next stage; one leads to a viable Palestinian state, the other to yet one more betrayal of the Palestinian cause. What you can't do is to have it both ways, as Tony Blair has learnt to his cost over Iraq.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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