No miracles for the Mideast peace process

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2008, 12:00am

'Let's not raise our expectations too high. We are talking about weak leaders on both sides, leaders who can barely stand on their own two feet ... No great miracle will happen here.' So wrote Yoel Marcus in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, ahead of US President George W. Bush's visit to Israel.

The two weak leaders he was talking about were Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. But it applies equally to Mr Bush himself.

The most positive thing that can be said about Mr Bush's whirlwind Middle East tour is that it probably won't make matters worse - mainly because they are so bad already.

Optimistic forecasts are being made for the outcome of this initiative, which seeks to create a legacy of success in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement after failure on almost every other front. (Don't mention Camp David, Bill Clinton's similar failed bid for a legacy in the last year of his eight-year presidency. It annoys them.)

But president Clinton was operating in a far more promising environment than Mr Bush is, for reasons that are not entirely Mr Bush's fault. In the Clinton era, there was still reason to hope that there might actually be a 'two-state solution' that saw an independent Palestinian state co-exist peacefully with Israel on the territory of the former British mandate of Palestine. Indeed, hardline opponents of a compromise peace on both sides worried that a deal might actually be made. But thanks in large part to their obstructionism, it never happened. By 2001, when Mr Bush took office, the second Palestinian uprising was well under way.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. Israelis have despaired of a negotiated peace and shifted towards unilateral measures. For many Palestinians, the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004 drained the last credibility from the two-state solution; the hardliners' star has risen there, too. It culminated, last summer, in Hamas' armed seizure of control in the Gaza Strip, which effectively divides the Palestinian Authority in two.

Little of this is Mr Bush's fault. He has done great damage with his invasion of Iraq, but the Israeli-Palestinian 'peace process' was already a wreck before he set foot in the White House.

Another Israeli newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, correctly judged the current initiative's prospects when it wrote: 'Once again Israelis who oppose territorial concessions can rest quiet in the knowledge that Arab leaders look set to doom the peace process to failure by waiting for someone else to move it forward.'

An Arab newspaper might write with equal justice that Palestinians who oppose territorial concessions can rest quiet in the knowledge that the Israeli government would collapse if Mr Olmert proposed any steps radical enough to revive Palestinian faith in the possibility of a negotiated peace. It's over, and the local leaders are just acting out their allotted roles in the charade to keep Washington happy. Mr Bush will have to seek his legacy elsewhere.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries