TOPICS : Bush’s pretence of progress in the Mideast

It is a well-deserved irony for George Bush that his first presidential visit to Israel coincided last week with the storm of excitement produced by the unexpected outcome of the two New Hampshire primaries. Nothing could better highlight the irrelevance of the final year of the Bush presidency.

Even before the president left Washington, expectations for his visit were low. His much-trumpeted meeting of Middle Eastern leaders in Annapolis in November produced a predictably tinny follow-up. Little happened in the subsequent six weeks, and it was only courtesy to Bush that impelled Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas to meet again in advance of the president’s touchdown in Tel Aviv on Wednesday and produce the blandest pretence of progress. According to Olmert’s spokesman, they agreed to “authorise their negotiating teams to conduct direct and ongoing negotiations on all the core issues”. Isn’t this merely a repeat of what they had already launched in Annapolis?

Bush’s engagement in the world’s most intractable dispute is late, piecemeal and phoney. Above all, it is one-sided. In any conflict, responsibility for making the largest concessions always rests on the stronger party, especially when most of the wrong is on its side. But, despite his rhetoric yesterday, Bush has not used Washington’s enormous leverage over Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.He has not even applied pressure for an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements or the dismantling of the spider’s web of roadblocks that make normal life for Palestinians impossible.

In the first phase of the so-called roadmap that Bush boasts of having revived, Palestinians are supposed to build the institutions of a responsible state. Yet Israel and the US continue to do all they can to undermine this laudable goal by blatantly taking sides in the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas. The human catastrophe deliberately inflicted on Gaza by western policies over the past two years is one of the great crimes of this century so far. It is especially unjustified since Hamas had been observing a truce in its attacks on Israelis for several months prior to winning the “free, fair and open elections” that the roadmap asked for.

Hamas was, and continues to be, punished not for its occasional use of violence but simply for being popular. Bush’s current visit to the region is nothing more than a display of partisan cynicism, coupled with the hope that if some sort of interim deal is signed it would erase Washington’s failures in Iraq. Will Palestinians have to wait as long as 2016 before President Clinton or President Obama is free enough to confront Israeli intransigence and to insist on concessions? Neither candidate has yet given any sign of breaking away from traditional pro-Israeli views of the problem, so once again Palestinians may have to wait for the eighth-year miracle. Windows of opportunity open so rarely, yet the need for early action has never been more urgent. — The Guardian