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Bush Mideast conference: Why now?

Depending on who's talking, President Bush is either taking advantage of a rare window of hope in the clouded Middle East, or he has the worst timing imaginable.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Depending on who's talking, President Bush is either taking advantage of a rare window of hope in the clouded Middle East, or he has the worst timing imaginable.

Bush took a more direct role in seeking peace between Israel and the Palestinians on Monday, despite what looks to many like an untenable split among the Palestinians and weak political leadership on both sides.

"The only consensus in the Palestinian and Israeli publics is that their current political leadership is ineffective," said Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Neither community has the beginning of an agreement on what goals it should strive for, or what blend of negotiations and threat of violence it should pursue."

Iraq-Palestinian connection
The bloodletting in Iraq shadows Bush's move for a U.S.-brokered conference among Mideast nations, as does fear among U.S. allies in the region about Iran's spreading influence and bellicose rhetoric.

The conference, to be chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would be the largest departure yet from Bush's first-term reluctance to lay American capital on the line for a deal that has eluded other presidents, or to ask hard compromises of close ally Israel.

"We believe that this is a moment for everybody to push the go button and try and make this work," Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told reporters after Bush's White House address outlining what he called new commitments to the Palestinians.

So why now? Bush's central reasons have much to do with a sense that time is running short for his administration.

Three reasons
First, Bush has become convinced the U.S. can no longer be a back-seat driver in the fraught Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and he must make a sincere effort to prepare the ground for an eventual peace that his advisers acknowledge is unlikely before he leaves office in 2009.

Second, the Bush administration pinned its hopes on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the death of Yasser Arafat, and so far has little to show for it. The United States now sees Abbas' bloody divorce from Hamas militants last month as an opportunity to finally establish his leadership bona fides.

Third, the United States needs its few friends in the Middle East, and those friends want to see some resolution to the five-decade-old conflict at the heart of other Mideast divisions. Driven by rising anti-American sentiment among their publics, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have all urged Bush to do more.

There is no express quid pro quo, of course, but part of the unspoken bargain is plain: Help us to prop up Iraq's weak U.S.-backed government, and we'll help you by trying to help the beleaguered Palestinians.

Bush acknowledged the immediacy of the Iraq issue, if not its link to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the first two lines of his White House speech Monday: "Iraq is not the only pivotal matter in the Middle East."

Cash and credibility
Bush restated a 5-year-old pledge to seek a separate Palestinian state, and laid out an aid package for the government of Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. The package is a retread of previous pledges, but Bush advisers said they hope it will give Abbas both cash and credibility.

"This in my judgment ... is what is going to be needed," Welch said. "American leadership is key. The president has put his stamp on this, and signaled where he would like to go."

Nathan Brown, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Bush is reacting to the "virtual civil war" between Abbas' moderate faction and the Palestinian Hamas militants. Hamas effectively evicted Abbas' forces from the Gaza Strip last month, leaving him with a tenuous emergency government in the West Bank and little say over the fate of 1.2 million Palestinians he nominally leads.

"The administration ... clearly sees an opportunity - one which most regional experts, myself included, are deeply skeptical about - to show Palestinians that (Abbas') path is more promising than Hamas'," Brown said.