The Economist
December 21, 2007 - 3:33pm

George Bush is heading to the Middle East

The US president, George W Bush, is planning an eight-day visit to the Middle East in early January in a bid to salvage some positive achievements from his administration's largely dismal legacy to the region. The main purpose of the visit will be to try to maintain the momentum of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process relaunched at last month's Annapolis conference. A subsidiary theme will be an effort to stiffen the resolve of the US's principal Arab allies in the face of Iran's perceived drive for regional hegemony. His itinerary starts on January 8th in Israel and the West Bank, after which he will visit Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Poor prospects

With the possible exception of Iraq, which is showing some signs of improvement after a nightmarish four years, few areas of US policy concern in the Middle East give much cause for encouragement for Mr Bush as he prepares for his trip. The Israel-Palestine question has been hit by the all-too familiar twin blight of Israeli settlement expansion and violence in Gaza; US and French efforts to get a president installed in Lebanon have been stymied by local forces allied to Syria and Iran; Gulf Arab states have been confused by the recent US intelligence estimate that appeared to give Iran a clean bill of health with respect to its nuclear plans; and Egypt is once more bridling at conditions set by Congress on US aid disbursements.

Price of Palestine

At the Annapolis peace conference, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to engage in "vigorous, ongoing and continuous" negotiations with the aim of concluding an agreement on all core issues, "without exception", before the end of 2008. Mr Abbas has been bolstered by a pledge of US$7.4bn in aid from international donors over the next three years, but there is a risk that Mr Olmert will draw the conclusion that this commitment to bankroll the Palestinian Authority will absolve Israel of the responsibility to make the concessions necessary to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state—in the first instance a freeze on settlement construction and the removal of restrictions on movement within the West Bank.

Israel's willingness to take constructive steps to bolster Mr Abbas will be strongly influenced by events in Gaza. This territory, in which just under half of the citizens of any future Palestinian state live, is now under the control of Hamas, the Islamist movement that won the January 2006 general election. Hamas and its more radical ally, Islamic Jihad, have been peppering Israeli areas adjacent to the Gaza Strip with rockets and mortars, to which Israel has responded with air attacks, limited incursions and an economic blockade. Hamas has offered to negotiate on condition that Israel stops its attacks and lifts the blockade. Israel has shown little interest in taking up this offer, but is also reluctant to commit itself to a full-blown assault on Hamas in Gaza for fear of enduring a rerun of its botched campaign in Lebanon in July-August 2006. Hamas faces mounting popular opposition within Gaza, but there is as yet little sign of its regime imploding or of Mr Abbas's Fatah movement staging a comeback.


Anti-Bush front

Mr Bush's presence in Ramallah will provide a powerful symbol of US support for its allies in the region. Similarly, the recent visit to Beirut by David Welch, the US assistant secretary of state for the near east, has scotched suggestions that the Bush administration may be ready to do a deal with Syria on the Lebanese presidency over the heads of the pro-Western parliamentary majority.

This affirmation of US support, whether by design or by implication, counters claims from Syria that the pro-Washington front in the Middle East is collapsing. The Syrian vice-president, Farouq al-Shara, explained his government's reasoning in speech to the ruling National Progressive Front on December 11th. He said that Syria had gone to Annapolis without any illusions that the promise of a substantive discussion of the Golan issue would be fulfilled. However, he said that Syria achieved a major gain through its attendance by undermining the notion of there being an alliance of moderates against hardliners in the Middle East. He said that Syria has succeeded in countering the efforts of the neo-conservatives in Washington to isolate the alliance of Syria, Lebanon's Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran.

Looking ahead to the Arab summit conference, to be held in Damascus in March, Mr Shara said that the conference would provide an opportunity for the Arab states to repair the divisions between them in the context of what he described as the failure of the US-Israeli plan for regional domination. Mr Shara's remarks provoked hostile comment in a number of Saudi Arabian newspapers, which interpreted his reference to the US-Israeli plan as implying criticism of the kingdom's close ties to Washington.


Tribunal test

The critical issue for the Syrian regime is the international tribunal set up under UN auspices to try those charged with involvement in the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005 and in a series of subsequent killings, the most recent being that of Brigadier-General François Hajj, the head of operations in the Lebanese army, on December 12th. Syria has cause for concern that some of its senior intelligence officials will figure on the charge sheet, and its current moves to ensure that its Lebanese allies gain the upper hand in Beirut can be seen as part of an effort to subvert the tribunal's proceedings—the court will be established outside Lebanon, in The Hague, but it will require a major contribution from the Lebanese judiciary. The tribunal may be ready to start proceedings in February 2008, according to remarks by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to the UN, reported in Al-Hayat, a pan-Arab daily.


Iran's shadow

In the Gulf, Mr Bush will be pressed to clarify US intentions towards Iran in light of the National Intelligence Estimate, which declared that Iran had stopped activities directly related to the development of nuclear missiles, but acknowledged that Iran was still in a position to acquire a nuclear weapons capability between 2010 and 2015. The Gulf Arab states are likely to be relieved that this change in US assumptions appears to render a military strike against Iran improbable, at least in the short term. However, they will be concerned at the inconsistency of the US approach to the issue, and alarmed at the prospect that the US may have conceded that there is little that it can do to stop Iran ultimately securing the capability to deploy nuclear weapons.


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