Thanks for the memories

January 18, 2008

President Bush set the bar so high for his Israeli and Palestinian peace partners, and for himself, that it seems out of reach. His prediction that the two sides will conclude a peace agreement by year's end reflects little more than the unbridled optimism of a president from Texas on his first visit to the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's ruling coalition got smaller this week as members of an ultraconservative political party bolted his government in protest against the U.S.-backed push toward peace. It leaves a weak Mr. Olmert vulnerable to more political attacks. Violence also continued yesterday as Israel launched another round of missile attacks into the Gaza Strip, which have killed more than 20 militants and, mistakenly, three members of a family this week. Hamas gunmen have responded with a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, and the fighting has angered supporters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The situation isn't conducive to peace negotiations. And a potentially scathing report on Mr. Olmert's handling of the 2006 war in Lebanon is due out soon, which could lead others in his government to push for new elections. The further we get from Mr. Bush's pronouncement about a peaceful end in sight, voiced at the start of his eight-day trip to the region, the more it sounds like a feel-good sound bite. The same goes for Mr. Bush's closing pledge to "stay engaged" in what's going on there. There's nothing to suggest Mr. Bush or his State Department team has a strategy to compel meaningful dialogue and concessions from the two sides.

And he won't get help from U.S. allies in the region, though he pressed his counterparts in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to promote and support the talks. They have no real incentive to engage because the main players are so disengaged. Even Mr. Bush's efforts to heighten concern about the threat posed by Iran and its funding of terrorist groups provoked little reaction from his Saudi hosts, perhaps because the ruling monarchs recognize how unpopular Washington is among Saudis.

Mr. Bush's Middle East trip may have been filled with signature personal firsts - standing at the Sea of Galilee where Jesus once stood, walking through the halls of Israel's premier Holocaust museum, visiting a falcon farm with an emirate prince, receiving a sword salute from his Bahraini hosts. But it gained no traction for a peace process in desperate need of revitalization.

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