Bush the Pilgrim

“I came as a pilgrim,” President Bush told Archbishop Elias Shakur, the clergyman who showed the president around the Church of the Beatitudes, a site on Israel’s Sea of Galilee where Jesus delivered his famed “Sermon on the Mount.”  Bush was answering the bishop’s question: "Did you come as a politician, as a leader of state, or as a pilgrim?"

President Bush is fulfilling all three roles on his eight-day Mideast tour.  He is touring as a politician to push his Annapolis peace initiative.  He is touring as a leader of state appealing to heads of Arab countries to get behind the peace process and as a pilgrim in a broad sense to renew Arab confidence in American leadership.  That’s a nearly impossible mission but more power to him.

During his welcoming ceremony, President Bush warned the Israeli audience that the Palestinian plight must be resolved because it seeds other conflicts and poisons public opinion throughout the region.  Then he exclaimed, "There’s a good chance for peace and I want to help you." 

Since December’s Annapolis summit, however, Bush’s peace partners have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.  That is in part why the President came to the Mideast, hoping to nudge the sides off the fence to make the politically risky compromises that could lead to a lasting agreement.  "I believe it’s going to happen, that there will be a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office," Bush said.

President Bush came to office in the shadow of a Clinton presidency where the executive was very hands-on in promoting peace in the Mideast, yet whose best efforts never proved successful. Until now, President Bush has been cautious about pushing a new process because he understood that as long as Yasser Arafat was leading the Palestinian people, a true and lasting peace would remain unattainable. 

Arafat is gone but the Palestinians are divided geographically and politically.  One part is ruled by Hamas, a terror organization, which occupies the Gaza Strip and wants Israel destroyed.  The rest is led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who has become Israel’s peace partner. 

Bush realizes that both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are weak peace partners who require the backing of a committed US ally in order to move the process forward.

While in Israel, Bush stuck to his basic goal but also proposed fresh ideas to spur his partners to action.  His goal remains to “Establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people."  

On the thorny Palestinian refugee problem, Bush proposed the parties resolve that issue by compensating those who lost their homes when they fled during the establishment of Israel.  This “solution” removes the so-called refugees’ “right to return.” 

That approach will be difficult for many refugees and their host countries to accept.  But for Israel there is no alternative.  After all, three quarters of Israel’s 7.2 million people are Jews making it a Jewish state.  Should most of the seven million exiled Palestinians return Israel would become a majority Arab state. 

Bush also proposed a shift in US policy based on revisionist history when he called for an end to Israel’s “occupation” of lands seized four decades ago.  Yes, Israel did seize the so-called West Bank in 1967 but at the time it belonged to Jordan and was occupied by Arabs, not “Palestinians.”  There is no Palestinian ethnicity.

“I believe that any peace agreement between them will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949,” the President explained.  This would include surrendering sovereignty of east Jerusalem and many Israeli settlements inside the West Bank to a future Palestinian state. 

The final disposition of Jerusalem and more than 100 Jewish settlements inside the “occupied” West Bank “… will be one of the most difficult challenges on the road to peace,” the President cautioned, but it is a “…road we have chosen to walk.”

Olmert insists the Palestinians take steps that guarantee Israel’s security before any land deal.  Abbas promises to try but most Israelis and Palestinians doubt he can deliver. 

That’s why Bush may propose that third party troops patrol the West Bank until a time when Palestinian security forces are capable of assuming their responsibilities.  However, many Palestinians oppose the presence of non-Palestinian security forces in the territories.
Can Olmert and Abbas reach an agreement with Bush’s prodding?  Can they sell that agreement to their respective governments and people?  The majority of their people are pessimistic about the prospects for a lasting agreement. 

On Friday, President Bush accepted Israel’s invitation to return this May to check on peace negotiations and help celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary.

After three days in Israel, President Bush began his “leader of state” tour to Arab countries including Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.  Bush needs Arab leaders to endorse his peace plan, to help pay-off the Palestinian refugees and to provide them with permanent homes.  That will be a hard sell for Arab totalitarians who are accustomed to using the Palestinains as pawns in their war of words with Israel.

Unfortunately, the President’s ace in the hole for leveragang Arab cooperation has been diminished.  The release of the US National Intelligence Estimate claiming Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and the decision by Qatar to invite Iran’s president to attend the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha seems to have fractured the Arab states’ stance against Tehran.  These events became Persian victories undercuting Bush’s ability to leverage security guarantees against Iranian aggression for Arab support of his Mideast peace initiative.

Finally, the President is touring as a pilgrim to reverse America’s soured image.

America’s image remains abysmal in most Arab countries and confidence in Bush’s leadership is universally low because of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Worse, Arab views about the prospects for Mideast peace, according to the Pew Research Center, are in the tank.  Large majorities do not believe the rights and needs of the Palestinian people can be taken care of as long as the state of Israel exists.

Overcoming such skepticism is a daunting task for any president much less one in his final year who has little popular support even at home. 

It’s commendable that President Bush is making Mideast peace a top priority.  He will need to aggressively and wisely exercise each of the three roles demonstrated in the current tour — politician, head of state and pilgrim — if he is to succeed. And even if an agreement isn’t signed before Bush leaves office a second best outcome would be for him to pass to the next president a nearly completed process.