Bush Middle East Trip Unlikely to Accomplish Much

Bush Middle East Trip Unlikely to Accomplish Much
Barbara Ferguson, Arab News

WASHINGTON, 13 May 2008 — Like most second term presidents in their final year in office, President George W. Bush is spending a considerable time on the road; but his trip to the Middle East, which begins today, has many here in Washington questioning its value.

During his May 13-18 trip to the region, Bush will attend celebrations for Israel’s 60th anniversary and “reaffirm his personal commitment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” said an aide.

Bush will meet in his trip with Israel’s President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tomorrow, and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Egypt on May 18.

He will also meet with Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah — a key player in the Mideast peace process — on May 16 in Saudi Arabia.

The primary purpose of the president’s five-day trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a follow-on to his trip to the same three countries and others in the region in January, is ceremonial. Bush also has planned plenty of official business.

The White House decision for Bush to see Abbas only while in Egypt, and not on another visit to the Palestinian territories, has raised eyebrows with Palestinians — especially given the lavish attention being paid to the founding of the Jewish state.

“This did not seem the time for a big, high-level, three-way event,” Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, told reporters. “It just doesn’t feel right as the best way to advance the negotiation.”

The lame duck president’s visit to Israel was ostensibly organized to congratulate the Jewish state on its 60th birthday but the trip was also supposed to boost Middle East peace talks.

As luck would have it, Bush arrives when Olmert is clinging to power, having been seriously distracted by yet another police investigation into whether he took bribes.

At the same time, next door in Lebanon, the Western-backed government is fighting Hezbollah forces, which waged an unfinished war against Israel 22 months ago, and seized control of much of Muslim west Beirut.

Many analysts predict the most Bush’s trip can accomplish will be to hand over a working peace process to his successor. Arabs across the region are looking past Bush with a hopeful eye — particularly if his successor is a Democrat, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Arab-Israeli peace negotiator who worked for the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, though he added that “there may be less of a change from Bush policies” than many Arabs think.

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