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Broad Failure In Middle East

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by Claude Salhani
UPI International Editor
Washingtion DC (UPI) Jul 19, 2007
U.S. President George W. Bush hopes to convene an international conference next autumn to pave the way forward for the stalled Middle East peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Well, at least with half the Palestinians, as the administration will not talk to Hamas, which it counts as a terrorist organization. This, of course complicates the task of peacemaking in the region, particularly in light of Hamas being democratically elected.

But Bush may have gotten wise to the ways of the Middle East; in Monday's speech he mentioned the word democracy but once, compared to six times in a speech he gave three years ago.

Additionally, the administration's continued refusal to negotiate with Syria will not make the task any easier.

Still, that Bush has turned his attention to the Arab-Israeli dispute is a positive development. The down side of this latest initiative, however, is the timing chosen by the American president.

The proposal to bring together Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with the intent of establishing a lasting peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution, is a positive step. However, this initiative comes at a time when the popularity of all three leaders is at rock bottom.

Bush's standing in the polls has never been lower. With 550-plus some days remaining until he vacates the Oval Office, many already consider Bush a lame duck president, especially after his Republican Party lost the majority in both houses of Congress. The morass that is the ongoing conflict in Iraq and the toll it is taking on the nation, both from an economic perspective as well as the human toll, has not helped Bush's popularity. In recent weeks even Republican lawmakers have come out against the war and are demanding from the White House a serious change of policy in Iraq.

According to costofwar.com, an Internet web site maintained by the National Priorities Project -- a group that analyzes and clarifies federal data, allowing people to understand and influence how their tax dollars are spent -- the United States is currently spending on average $215,000 per minute on the war in Iraq. This amounts to some to $9 billion per year. This figure does not include the hidden costs of war. And on the human casualty front, the number of fatalities suffered by the U.S. military has topped the 3,500 mark.

Olmert's popularity in Israel is hardly any better than that of President Bush. Olmert is still feeling the consequences of last summer's failed war against the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon.

During 34 days of intensive fighting the Israeli army was unable to dislodge pockets of Hezbollah resistance in South Lebanon, from where the Shiite militia continued to bombard Israeli towns, cities and settlements in the northern part of the country with Katyusha rockets, including the port city of Haifa. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee to safer locations in the southern half of the country. The fighting forced the port of Haifa to shut at the cost of millions of dollars of lost revenue per day.

And finally Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is in reality a leader with little authority over the territory he is meant to administer. His popularity has also dwindled away, particularly after "losing" the Gaza Strip to Hamas. Still, the two main parties concerned, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, voiced optimism at the prospect of a peace conference spearheaded by the United States.

Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian president, told United Press International that the speech given by President Bush was "a very encouraging speech."

While Miri Eisin, a media adviser to the Israeli prime minister said the Israelis "agree with everything (Bush said.) We see this all eye to eye." Israel hopes the summit would attract "moderate Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Bahrain to come out and openly support the Palestinians and their moderation."

But much like President Bill Clinton's last stab at trying to extract an agreement from Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak in the waning days of his presidency, only to realize it was too little, too late, Bush may end up facing the same harsh reality -- that the resolution to the conflict in the Middle East requires much more time and commitment.

Israelis, too, realize they have wasted three years when they could have done much more to help Abbas when he was prime minister. Instead, they and the United States did nothing to strengthen him in the face of an ever-growing Hamas. It was only after Hamas pushed Fatah out of Gaza, and the Israelis realized they would find themselves with an Islamist state at their door that both Israel and Washington reacted by propping up Abbas.

As for the chances of success, a number of analysts appear rather pessimistic. Daniel Levy, of the New American Foundation, describes the American president's new initiative as such: "Yesterday was more of the same with less chance of success. I would characterize it as the president pushing down really rather softly on the accelerator pedal of a failed polity."

Source: United Press International

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