Bush Push for Mideast Peace a Lame Duck Move

As President Bush presses for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that would also burnish his legacy, the lame-duck president faces persistent skepticism in the Middle East and in Washington policy circles about his ability to achieve it in the time he has left.

After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas this week, Bush declared himself hopeful that the outlines of a Middle East Peace agreement could be reached by the end of the year. There is no formal timetable for a pact, he said. But there is a natural deadline.

"I'm on a timetable," Bush said during the first stop ever by an American president in the Arab West Bank capital of Ramallah this week. "I've got 12 months in office."

The path to Middle East peace has been long and seemingly without end, one trodden by presidents Clinton and Carter before Bush. With a mere 12 months to go before the next president assumes office, Bush is mounting an effort that has many skeptics.

"The Middle East seems to be what lame duck presidents do," said Ken Pollack, Director of Research of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. "This is the kind of trip that he should have done sooner and he should have made them more frequently... By waiting, he's created much higher expectations."

Bush's current policy marks a reversal of his own concerns about leading Middle East peace efforts. Although Bush was the first president to call for a Palestinian state as part of U.S. policy, he has been critical of past peace forays by President Clinton.

"The only time that's appropriate for a U.S. president to call a summit (is) when it looks like something can get done," Bush told ITV in April 2002. "The problem is, the American president, when he calls a summit, better get it right. If a summit fails, if the president ... lays it out there and nothing happens, generally the ... follow-up is worse than the status quo.

Still in the middle of the president's weeklong tour of the Middle East, already Bush administration officials are dampening hopes for a quick peace pact.

"There will be a period of time, undoubtedly, in which the two sides continue to be very far apart." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a stop in Kuwait. However, she added, "There is reason to be hopeful that they can make a major move to end the conflict."

Cynicism is particularly strong in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Many Arabs consider Bush more pro-Israel than any American president in recent history -- particularly over the nettlesome issue of Israeli settlements that make a map of the West Bank look, in his own words, like "Swiss cheese."

Fatima Darawi lives in a small Arab village within the security perimeter of one such Israeli settlement, called Har Homa. It is essentially an island of Israel within the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. She was born in a cave near her current home in the village of Noman, and has lived here for 75 years.

"The Israelis want to treat us like a tree, deprived of water," she says. "They have taken our land and humiliated us... They've made it a living hell here."

That skepticism about the possibilities for peace -- and President Bush's efforts to achieve it -- is widely shared in the Arab World, said Dennis Ross, a former senior American envoy to the region.

"For some of the Arab world, they haven't believed that this [trip] mattered to him," Ross said.

Since he began the peace process with highly publicized peace talks in Annapolis, Md., in December, Ross said, "the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians has deteriorated. ... If they don't change on the ground, then all of this is just words."

Nevertheless, Brookings' Pollack said, progress is possible.

"The peace process is not going to be resolved overnight. If the president was to make a big effort, he might be able to break out some log jams ... reassuring people about U.S. policy," Pollack said. "The problem is for seven years the region has seen a great deal of neglect."

This week's visit has done little to allay critics' concerns, said David Makovsky, senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

The people think "Bush comes, Bush goes, and my life's the same," he said.

"They'll believe again when they see changes on the ground and that's what they're missing," Makovsky said. "They need the public behind them. They have to deal with the ground... They're jaded right now until they see something different in their day-to-day lives... [The Bush administration has] to be seen as doing something."

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