Why is he coming?

Why is US President George W. Bush coming to Israel and Palestine this week? This visit, his first here as president, was tacked on to a wider sweep of the Gulf countries and seems to have been born almost as an afterthought following the Annapolis meeting of late November. Ostensibly, it is intended to give a push to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process announced at that meeting. That is certainly one way of seeing the visit.

According to leaks to the Israeli press, Bush’s visit will be exploited by Israeli PM Ehud Olmert to pursue negotiations aimed at providing American validation for Olmert’s concept of the shape of a future Palestinian state: concessions to Israel’s security concerns in the air and on the ground, including in the Jordan Valley and the settlement blocs. In other words Olmert, according to this take on Bush’s visit, intends to recruit additional US support so as to strengthen his negotiating position vis-a-vis Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and, accordingly, enhance his image in the eyes of the Israeli public. Any connection between this direction of events and the actual success of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is coincidental: Olmert has to convince Abbas, not Bush.

Bush and Olmert will also certainly discuss the interface between the Israel-Arab peace process and the American-Arab-Israeli effort to block Iran’s nuclear effort in the current post-National Intelligence Estimate phase. Bush intends to reassure Israel that the US understands its security concerns regarding Iran, even though his anti- Iran policy has been rendered toothless by the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. Hopefully, Israel and the US will also discuss Israel’s legitimate security concerns for the inevitable moment when Washington gets down to serious negotiations with Tehran.

Then too, one purpose of Bush’s visit is apparently to offer moral support and photo opportunities to his good friend PM Ehud Olmert, who will on January 30 confront a highly critical Winograd final report on his performance during the war in Lebanon a year and a half ago. Olmert is currently pulling out all the media stops and political maneuvers in an effort to maximize public sympathy in anticipation of the report.

There is one thing Bush is apparently not coming to do. He will not put heavy pressure on Olmert, publicly or in private, to start carrying out his roadmap phase I obligations and energetically remove outposts–he has already relegated the task of monitoring that effort to a committee. "I will talk about Israeli settlement expansion, about how that is… an impediment to success", Bush told one interviewer last week. That’s about as heavy as the pressure will get. Olmert will survive it. Nor will Bush publicly tell the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership that unless and until they find a way to reform the Fateh party and restore their rule in the Gaza Strip their peace efforts cannot bear fruit.

In other words, Bush is not coming to make a serious effort to advance a substantive peace process. His visit, like the Annapolis conference that preceded it, does not represent a major turning point in his administration’s approach to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. In this regard, his latest attempt to frame the objective of his final year in office as "defining the outlines of a Palestinian state" is decidedly less ambitious than actually solving the conflict. Yet even this new and more modest goal won’t be achieved if it depends on substantive American input. This visit, like Bush’s Israeli-Palestinian peace process in general, looks to be all hype and superficiality. Yes, Bush is a "known quantity" (on whose watch, he argues, the parties should wish to make a peace deal)–but that’s part of the problem.

Perhaps it’s better that way. Since 9/11, most of what Bush has touched in the Middle East has gone sour. His democracy reform project enfranchised militant Islamists. His conquest of Iraq has destabilized that state and enhanced and empowered Iran’s hegemonic drive there and in the Levant. The US occupation of Afghanistan is bogged down, and Bush is liable to be known as the president who "lost" Pakistan. His encouragement 18 months ago for Israel to deal a lethal blow to Hizballah in Lebanon (where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the "birth pangs of the new Middle East") pushed the Olmert government to multiply its mistakes there. His administration’s initial effort to build up Palestinian security forces in the hope of undoing the damage of US-sponsored elections helped trigger Hamas’ military takeover in Gaza half a year ago. Now his drive to denuclearize Iran has fizzled.

No matter. Both Olmert and Abbas are in any case too weak to sustain a successful peace process.

Reading and watching Bush’s pre-visit interviews to the mainstream Israeli press is almost a surreal experience. His friendship with and admiration for Ehud Olmert override any inclination to see Israel’s prime minister as the vast majority of Israelis see him. His insistence that "freedom", "liberty" and "democracy" will win out in the Middle East flies in the face of the disastrous course of events catalyzed by his administration’s efforts in the region.

The upcoming Bush visit will be no less surreal.