Is a Very Public Love Affair Headed for the Rocks?


 Could Israel's love affair with President George W. Bush be on the rocks? Supporters of hard-line Israeli policies have long praised the president as one of Israel's best friends ever in the Oval Office. When asked what that means, they'll most often say it's "because he leaves us alone."

They have their own "Three No's": no pressure, no American peace plans, no criticism of Israeli policy.

But could that be about to change in the waning years of the Bush presidency? Right-wingers here say it may, but the political dynamics in the region and here in Washington suggest it will be just business as usual.

For more than six years, President Bush has avoided plunging into the Mideast peace morass. Occasionally, he'd dip a toe or two, but only to show he wasn't ignoring things, which, of course, he was. He wouldn't even have done that much — wanting to avoid following in the footsteps of his father and Bill Clinton — but along came 9/11 and then the Iraq fiasco.

Foreign leaders and his father's faithful retainers kept telling him he needed to show some results in Arab-Israeli peacemaking if he expects help with Iraq and Iran.

Even if the president doesn't take that very seriously, his secretary of state seems to have decided it is time to take the plunge. Condoleezza Rice even suggested a U.S. peace plan "might be a useful thing to do." That would be a dramatic reversal of more than six years of Bush Mideast policy.

She wants to focus on final-status issues, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been urging, to create a "political horizon" that will give Palestinians a view of what the eventual outcome will look like.

Rice has a partner in Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who also prefers a more energetic approach. But their bosses, Bush and Ehud Olmert, seem uninterested and too weak to care. And on the Palestinian side, Abbas is interested but impotent, while Hamas' Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya, is just the opposite.

Olmert, whose approval ratings are in single digits, sees Livni as a potential rival for Kadima Party leadership, if the party is still around by the next election. He's being very cautious, wary of upsetting the right-wingers he needs to hold his fragile government together.

He reluctantly agreed to biweekly meetings with Abbas, but don't buy any season tickets for that show; it won't last long.

Critical to the success of any American initiative is the continuing personal involvement of the president — regional leaders expect nothing less — and there is no indication Bush is willing or able to make that commitment.

Olmert is confident that despite Rice's wishes, Bush doesn't have the time or the inclination for something that never held much interest in the first place, and now must take a back seat to his tzuris in Iraq and Iran and political problems at home.

Olmert sang Bush's praises during a recent televised address to American pro-Israel activists, echoing the tune of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon. Both admired Bush most for his hands-off approach; they were satisfied that the administration was all talk and no action when it came to the Palestinian cause.

The Saudis are helping keep things that way. They had a chance to score a major diplomatic breakthrough last month, but instead rebuffed pleas from Washington and Jerusalem to modify their 2002 peace initiative, coming up with their own "Three No's": no negotiations with the Israelis, no changes in the plan and no details.

It's tough to take the Saudi plan seriously. It is a set of non-negotiable demands by a country that for more than five years has refused to back up its peace rhetoric with action. King Abdullah refuses to meet the Israelis, or even to define the peace and normalization he offers until Israel meets all of his terms.

The reality — and the tragedy — of the Saudi initiative is this is another public-relations ploy by a country more accustomed to financing terrorism than peace.

Until Abdullah and fellow Arab leaders muster the courage to directly challenge Israel across the negotiating table instead of backing a terrorist-led Palestinian government, hard-liners in Israel and their backers here will be very comfortable with Bush Mideast policy, and the love affair will remain what it is: strong.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.



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