The peace process he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had hoped to rejuvenate with the summit meeting in Annapolis in late November has since been stalled. Bush's goal of a Palestinian state by the end of his term remains as challenging as ever.
Still, the president has long been criticized for allowing the region's signature conflict to deteriorate, which may be one of the reasons for his visit to the Israeli and Palestinian capitals, the first of his presidency, before continuing on to Egypt and the gulf. The trip is shaping up as a demonstration to the Muslim world that the Bush Doctrine and the war on terror mean not only American military force but American diplomacy, too.
In Israel, though, Bush gets a look at a war on terror waged the old-fashioned way--with guns and soldiers--that is showing more results than diplomacy has in a long time. The results have been dramatic: Last year ended with 13 Israelis killed in Palestinian terror attacks, fewer than in any year since the intifada began in late 2000, and the second fewest of any year in the last two decades. For perspective, the number of Israelis killed in terror attacks in 2002, at the height of the intifada, was 451.
This clampdown has been achieved by ground raids, "targeted assassinations," helicopter assaults on Islamic militants firing rockets from Gaza, and, on the West Bank, a massively intrusive network of armed checkpoints backed by "the wall," a high, fortified security barrier. As a consequence, not only has terror waned drastically, there have even been noises lately from Hamas, the radical Islamic ruler of Gaza and contender for power on the West Bank, about a cease-fire. Against Hamas and its allies, however, Israel is content to let its Army and Air Force do the talking.
For Bush's arrival in Jerusalem, Israel prepared a high-alert love-fest. A virtual red state in its support of the president's most hawkish policies, Israel shows its appreciation for his singular, long-standing support for its own hard-line military tactics, especially toward the Palestinians. "We will welcome him with joy," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet. With joy and extreme caution: Until Bush's departure from the Holy Land Friday afternoon, about half the country will be turned into a sterile zone bristling with police.
When he travels to Ramallah, there probably won't be anywhere near as much joy in the air, but nevertheless, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has more reason than even Olmert has to show his personal gratitude to the president. It was the Bush administration that seized on Abbas's steadfast moderation in the face of the intifada to prop him up as a counterweight to the impossible Yasser Arafat, and it is the Bush administration that's been the source of his political survival ever since. Although Abbas and his Palestinian constituency are chafing at the lack of diplomatic progress toward freedom from Israel's military occupation, they are certainly pleased at the money for government salaries and development projects that's flowing again from the United States and the European Union to the West Bank, now that Hamas is no longer a partner there in government.
Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayad, the Bush administration's favorite Palestinian technocrat, can also show their guest a forceful, if modest, victory of their own over terror. In the past month, Palestinian security forces encouraged by the United States have arrested some 250 Hamas operatives on the West Bank and confiscated about 120 guns, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. As much as anything, the Palestinian Authority's inability to control terror has been holding the peace process back, so these arrests offer a glimmer of hope. Even Israeli Defense Ministe Ehud Barak congratulated the Palestinian troops on this move "to tighten their grip on the street."
A Hamas official in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said in a statement reported by Reuters that Bush's journey to the region "is nothing but a farewell visit to get some photo opportunities [before having] to leave the White House." The Hamas man may turn out to be right. But even if Bush doesn't succeed in pushing the peace process forward, he should come away with a sense of satisfaction, even of vindication, that in this Middle East hot spot that's been diplomacy-proof for seven years, the war on terror is looking up.
By Larry Derfner