AFP: The threat posed by Iran and shifting realities in the region have spurred US President George W. Bush to step into the Middle East peace process after years of neglect, experts said Friday. WASHINGTON (AFP) The threat posed by Iran and shifting realities in the region have spurred US President George W. Bush to step into the Middle East peace process after years of neglect, experts said Friday.
Bush has made a strong personal investment in the conference to be held on Tuesday in Annapolis, working to ensure that it is a success and not notched up in time to his administration’s failure thus far to make any real attempts to achieve an elusive peace.
The Bush administration and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice realize the clock is ticking.
But acknowledging the enormity of the task ahead, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino has refused to say whether Bush still believes he will see the declaration of a Palestinian state before he leaves office in January 2009.
Amid skepticism about the chances of success in Annapolis, Rice stressed the Israelis and Palestinians have vowed “they are going to make efforts to conclude” a deal during Bush’s term.
“It’s not a secret that it means about a year. That’s what we’ll try and do,” Rice said.
In bid to drum up support for the talks, Bush personally worked the telephones earlier this week calling Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
He will also meet with them three times next week both together and separately from Monday to Wednesday.
But is it too little, too late?
It’s true to say that Bush took up office on the heels of the failure of the Camp David summit, hosted by his predecessor Bill Clinton, and as the second intifada had erupted in the Palestinian territories.
“I think it certainly affected President Bush’s view of things, but it was a mistake to simply walk away and watch from the sidelines,” said Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel under Clinton.
“There was a whole edifice of peacemaking that had been established over the previous eight years by the Clinton administration, and essentially it was burned to the ground,” he told NPR radio.
The ousting of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 presented a new chance for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, but it was squandered by the Bush administration which preferred “ideology” to diplomacy, Indyk added.
Another opportunity was missed with the death of veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, said David Makovsky, an expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But a new window has opened today, he said, and Bush feels that he has a chance to “put this peace process on a better footing for the next administration.”
The turning point came when the Hamas militant organization seized control of the Gaza Strip earlier this year, Makovsky said.
“It highlighted that if you do not make efforts now this conflict is going to be transformed from a nationalist struggle into a religious conflict and once it becomes a religious conflict it becomes insolvable.”
But above all, Indyk and Makovsky agreed, the Bush administration has seized upon the growing recognition among moderate Arab nations that Iran’s influence in the region has to be reined in.
One of the “multiple ironies of the Middle East” is that “the failure in Iraq led to the rise of Iran’s influence in the region,” Indyk said.
“This became deeply threatening to the Sunni Arab states, and they and Israel suddenly found that they were on the same side against the Iranians.”
The standoff with Iran, and the Islamic Republic’s refusal to rein in its suspect nuclear program, risks overshadowing all Bush’s other priorities in his final months in office.
“I think for Bush this peace process is a means to other ends,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
It is a way “of attempting to contain the influence of these radical actors in a variety of arenas, and a means of sort of cementing a coalition … against Iran and its allies,” she said.
The Annapolis conference is above all Rice’s initiative, experts say, and Bush is also anxious to be seen to be supporting his secretary of state.
“He is showing that she has his endorsement and his support and that he is fully backing her efforts ” said Mara Rudman, former deputy national security advisor to Clinton.
And it is unlikely that Bush really believes that his place in history will come to be measured by the outcome of the Annapolis talks.
“In terms of the legacy question … I think this president knows that his historic legacy is going to stand or fall on Iraq and not on this,” said Cofman Wittes.