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Jewish World Review May 30, 2003 / 28 Iyar, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Bush's flight plan to nowhere

Sharon's trust in the president is going to be put to the test | The first question you have to ask about President Bush's decision to fly to the Middle East next week is simple: Why in heaven's name would anyone do something that is so obviously wrongheaded and doomed to failure?

He wouldn't be the first leader to set out on a march of folly, but before we bury him, let's review a few facts.

The immediate impetus for the trip is the vote by the Israeli Cabinet to endorse the "road map" to peace put forward by the diplomatic quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. This was the result of desperate lobbying by the administration to get Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to buy into the peace plan —even with a reported 14 detailed reservations.

It appears that Sharon did so for two reasons.

First, he understands that his chief diplomatic goal is to allow as little daylight as possible between the positions of Israel and its only ally. In the aftermath of America's victory over Iraq, turning Bush down was unthinkable.

Secondly, Sharon actually seems to trust Bush's instincts on peace. Sounding far more conciliatory than at any time in the past, the Israeli premier is doing literally everything possible to shore up Bush's diplomatic position.

But the question remains: Is that trust justified?

No reason to go
On the face of it, Bush's decision to go to Sharm el-Sheik for a summit should answer the question in the negative. Why?

For one, the decision to go to Egypt — which has been a thorn in the side of the United States throughout the lead-up to the Iraq war and a virulent enemy of progress toward peace with Israel in recent years — is a dumb mistake. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has not earned the privilege of hosting such an event.

Also, Bush is clearly repeating the mistakes of his not-so-illustrious predecessor, President Bill Clinton.

Though Bush clearly isn't bucking for a Nobel Peace Prize (though due to his liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq from bloody tyrants, he deserves one more than either Clinton or the current presidential Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter), he faces the same trap that sunk Clinton at a number of ill-conceived peace summits.

In spite of the constant yammering from pundits, editorial pages and ex-State Department employees that more "engagement" is required, Bush should understand that such detailed involvement will only set him up to fail. By participating in an empty gesture like the proposed conference, he will certainly be blamed for the fact that it will produce no progress toward peace.

Which is itself reason No. 3. For all of the diplomatic huffing and puffing over its debut, Bush surely knows the road map is doomed to failure.

Having opened the possibility for real change in the region with his admirable June 24 speech placing the onus on reform of the corrupt and terrorist leaders of the Palestinians, he must know the road map deviates from the path he set out at that time.

The appointment of a new Palestinian prime minister and cabinet has done little to undermine Yasser Arafat's stranglehold on power within the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, even if his good intentions are to be trusted, Mahmoud Abbas' slim chances of success are being undercut by Bush's European partners in this exercise. Just this week, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin flouted American policy by paying a personal visit to Arafat in his crumbling Ramallah headquarters. That move gave the laugh to any notion that Arafat was diplomatically isolated.

So, too, is the idea that any cease-fire with Israel accepted by Palestinian terror groups, such as Hamas, would lead to peace. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Arafat's own Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade are still able to inflict pain on Israel. But their strategic position could only be enhanced by a respite from the hammering they have been getting from the Israel Defense Force. The road map makes a mockery of Bush's stated desire to fight terrorism — and its enablers — everywhere.

Europeans and leftist critics of Israel all know that the only way any progress will result from the road map is by heavy-handed American pressure on Israel to trade the security of its citizens for measures that appease the Palestinians.

In the last few weeks, Sharon was double-teamed by the Americans. Good cop National Security Council Advisor Condoleeza Rice assured him that Israel's reservations about the map would be recognized and dealt with. But bad cop Secretary of State Colin Powell assured the quartet that the map, with its emphasis on Israeli concessions in exchange for empty Palestinian promises, would remain unchanged.

But the notion that Bush will twist Sharon's arm into accepting a path to a Palestinian state that will not be either democratic or peaceful — as such a state will almost certainly be — also flies in the face of everything we know about him. Bush may crave a lowering of the temperature in the region to facilitate America's hard job of nation-building in Iraq. But he has already shown that he is not the sort of president who is willing to turn a blind eye to Palestinian lies and terror the way Clinton did.

Not as dumb as they think
Given all these reasons, why is Bush intent on making such a bad mistake?

One answer might be that he is as blind and dumb as his partisan critics like to imagine. But given the way he has deftly handled the politics of the presidency in the past two years, that is unlikely.

So what's he really up to?

Bush might use the summit as an occasion to pressure not Israel, but the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world to accept a true peace, and not the Israel-on-a-silver-platter version they are accustomed to. Perhaps the president will use the Sharm el-Sheik summit to echo not the double talk of the road map, but his June 24 idea of a peace that is not a one-sided path to more danger for Israel.

Even if that does happen, Sharon and Israel will not escape having to make some concessions about settlements. Once again, Israel will pay in the hard currency of territory for nothing of value.

But something in Bush's straightforward manner and the genuine respect for Israel he has shown has inspired Sharon's trust. Americans are so used to underestimating the president that many of us are unable to see what the old general sees.

It may also be the fact that some of Bush's key advisers, such as Elliot Abrams, the top Middle East hand in the White House, is clearly opposed to a repeat of the Oslo catastrophe.

Whatever it is, let's hope Sharon's keen instincts have not left him. If so, then maybe Bush will emerge from the summit with both his honor and America's anti-terrorist principles intact.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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