US President George W. Bush has a faulty calendar and questionable optimism when it comes to the Middle East.
By his original reckoning, an elusive peace should have happened three years ago and a democratic Palestinian state should now be living in harmony with longtime enemy Israel.
That was the hopeful timetable prescribed in the 2003 Middle East strategy known as the “road map.”
Of course, it did not happen.
Instead of a historic reconciliation, tensions flared, more violence erupted and bloodshed brought grief and deepened generations-old hatreds, particularly on the Palestinian side, which suffered disproportionately heavy casualties.
So, Bush reset his timetable and promised to get engaged in the tedious peacemaking process that he largely avoided during most of his presidency.
He left for the region yesterday to try again.
Undaunted by the missed deadline, he already had set an ambitious target for an agreement about 250 days from now, reaching for a peace deal that has eluded other administrations that invested more time, energy and prestige than his administration has.
Almost six months after the new process was launched in Annapolis, Maryland, there is little sign of progress and widespread skepticism about reaching an accord.
“It’s hard to remember a less auspicious time to pursue Arab-Israeli peacemaking than right now,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The politics on the ground are absolutely miserable. US power and influence are at a low ebb in the region.”
Bush’s new push comes with scheduled visits to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt beginning today. It is his second trip to the region this year and holds little promise of any breakthrough. The White House said Bush, once again, would ask the Saudis to increase oil production to ease soaring prices for consumers. Bush made a similar plea in January, but was ignored.
All the key players in the peace talks have weak hands that make a major agreement unlikely before Bush leaves office in January.
With his approval ratings near historic lows, Bush is struggling with a sickly economy, an unpopular war in Iraq and efforts by Iran to spread its influence. The seizure of western Beirut by Shiite Hezbollah fighters backed by Syria and Iran humiliated the US-backed government in Lebanon last week and posed more troubles for the White House.
On Monday, fresh heavy fighting broke out between government supporters and opponents in Lebanon’s north.
The tense situation on the eve of Bush’s trip is “deeply troubling to the president,” his spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said on Monday. “You can bet this is a topic that will come up” as the president meets with leaders in the region, she said.
Later, Bush issued a statement condemning “Hezbollah’s recent efforts and those of their foreign sponsors in Tehran and Damascus to use violence and intimidation to bend the government and people of Lebanon to their will.”
He said the US would stand behind the Siniora government in Lebanon and continue to provide assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. “The international community will not allow the Iranian and Syrian regimes, via their proxies, to return Lebanon to foreign domination and control,” Bush said.