U.S. President George W. Bush, whose legacy seems destined to be defined by the Iraq war, now wants to make history by brokering the Middle East peace deal that eluded so many of his predecessors.But Bush’s effort, launched this week at Annapolis, Maryland, to forge a treaty between Israelis and Palestinians by the end of 2008 faces long odds, not least because of doubts about his commitment.
Annapolis marks a huge shift for Bush, who since taking office in 2001 has shunned the kind of hands-on role in peacemaking pursued by past presidents including his father and Bill Clinton.
“This is an administration that has for seven years essentially ignored this issue,” said David Rothkopf, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Of course it’s possible he could get lucky.”
“If he manages to pull a rabbit out of a hat, it will be one of the great surprises of American diplomacy.”
White House officials say Bush felt the time was right for the Annapolis conference because of circumstances in the region, including the support of Arab countries and a desire by both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to see it through.
Well aware of the skepticism, Bush spared no effort to signal that he, too, was serious about pushing forward.
In his speech to the conference, Bush promised Abbas and Olmert that he would “do all I can to help you achieve this ambitious goal.”
He made clear in an interview with CNN on Wednesday that would include intervening to help break logjams.
“I’m going to absolutely help,” Bush said. “I’ll make sure, as will the secretary of state, that when they’re stuck we’ll help them get unstuck.”
‘COMPULSION OF HISTORY’
Bush’s predecessor, Clinton, who relished the role of mediator, also attempted a peace effort in the waning weeks of his presidency.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast negotiator who advised former Secretary of State Colin Powell early in the Bush administration, said “fear of failure” may have accounted for some of Bush’s aversion to engaging on the Middle East.
Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, also said it may have been part of Bush’s effort to differentiate himself from Clinton, who was seen as a gifted mediator.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, terrorism became central to Bush’s thinking about the Middle East. His focus on that and on the Iraq war have left little time to devote to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is thought by many to be the driving force behind his decision to hold the Annapolis conference.
“I think in part (Rice) feels the need to demonstrate her own capacity to take on a really hard issue and own it,” Miller said.
But Miller and other experts said the peacemaking process cannot succeed unless Bush is willing to do the heavy lifting.
In addition to leaning on both sides to try to bridge their differences when negotiations hit a snag, an important role for Bush would be “to try to galvanize the international community to get behind this,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“There’s a certain power of the presidency to shine the Klieg lights on a problem and give it a prominence that no one else can give it,” he said.
Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria, said it was “the compulsion of history that draws America and American presidents into this issue. It’s something you can’t avoid.”