Is Bush serious?

President Bush’s remarks in the Rose Garden on May 26 constituted yet another exercise by the US leader in hinting at a genuine leadership role… then backing off. As he has done repeatedly in recent months and years, the president bravely stuck his toe in the cold waters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decided it’s not the time to dive in and get wet.

The "escalation" in commitment reflected in the president’s remarks was so carefully calibrated, so deftly spun, that we are left asking and examining, cautiously, what was new in the president’s performance. He added Jerusalem to the list of regions where Israel was admonished not to contravene roadmap obligations. And he mentioned not only Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank, but the need for "meaningful linkages between the West Bank and Gaza". He left us to ponder the precise meaning of "meaningful linkages", with some Israeli observers speculating (for the millionth time in the course of the past 12 years) about a "sunken road" or a "road on stilts" to bridge the 43 km. separating the two parts of Palestine.

He’s sending Secretary of State Rice back to the region before the beginning of disengagement. But apparently not to mediate or facilitate. Just to visit.

He’s giving Abbas a direct gift of $50 million to improve Palestinian lives in Gaza. This softens the blow of some $200 million in "aid to the Palestinians" that Congress insists be doled out to Palestinian NGOs and to Israel, rather than to Abbas’ democratically-elected reformist government.

Bush also referred to the need for Israelis and Palestinians to coordinate all "changes to the 1949 armistice lines" rather than to the pre-1967 lines, which is the usual term employed. This, interestingly, was not new; Bush used the same phrase in his April 14, 2004 letter to PM Sharon. While changes in the armistice lines carried out by Israel and Jordan between 1949 and 1967 were relatively minor, this was not the case with Israel and Syria, and Bush’s repeated reference to the 1949 lines, as opposed to those of 1967, appears to reflect an attempt to maintain consistency on more than one front.

Everything else in Bush’s remarks about the need for both sides to fulfill their roadmap obligations and for Israel’s security fence to be a "security, rather than political, barrier" is well known. He could have broken new ground when asked by a reporter about US readiness to recognize Hamas if it disarms, but carefully avoided doing so.

This is not a sufficient expression of involvement and commitment from the man who first made a two-state solution official American policy; who has dedicated his administration to rewarding democratization in the Arab Middle East; and who rhetorically champions Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

What we need to hear from the American president is that, if Abbas "delivers" on security, democracy and reform, and assuming disengagement leaves the Sharon government intact, Bush will demand a serious peace process or, failing that, another massive disengagement, this time from the West Bank mountain heartland. We need t hear that he will send Condoleezza Rice not for a weekend, but for whatever period of time is necessary to ensure compliance and progress. That he will not flinch when confronted with domestic political pressures to desist. That he knows that, in order to succeed, he must not be deterred by the prospect of the kind of failure that ushered out the Clinton presidency in late 2000-early 2001.

Everything about President Bush’s repeated statements regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue appears to be calculated to hold out the possibility that this will happen, but without committing the president. Some would say his caution is understandable: the US is mired in an ugly and seemingly intractable conflict in Iraq; it has no solution thus far for Iran’s nuclear ambitions; Abbas could fail; Hamas could gain a portion of power and refuse to disarm or negotiate; disengagement could go horribly wrong; and Sharon will almost certainly be intractable about moving ahead quickly to exploit the momentum of disengagement. Others would argue that a more persuasive commitment by Bush to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere would facilitate positive movement on all these fronts.

Either way, the question remains: is Bush serious? Knowing Abbas’ and Sharon’s weaknesses and views on final status, there is not the slightest prospect of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front after disengagement unless Bush commits. Even then it will be an uphill battle.