Bush Hits a Wall in the Mideast

Watching Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner and other congressional leaders craft a stimulus package to calm the turbulent economy is like watching President Bush pursue his equally implausible and belated Middle East peace initiative. In each case, the challenges are so much larger than the means suddenly being brought to bear that you don't know whether to laugh or to cry.

Just as politicians are ill-suited to sort out the effects of a complex global credit crunch, Bush is a long shot to pull off a diplomatic triumph that has eluded a long line of outside negotiators. The stretches of peace that have come to the region have been created locally -- out of desperation -- not through grand designs whipped up in Washington or Geneva. That is likely to be the case this time, too.

Bush, Pelosi and the others are driven by the same political motivation: They need to be seen doing something about a deteriorating situation they don't really control. They hope that they will catch a wave and have their initiatives seem to have generated it. Bush hinted at this window-dressing factor in a discussion with reporters Jan. 15 in Saudi Arabia:

"The reason why you articulate a vision is to give people inside the Palestinian territories who don't want violence and who don't want to destroy Israel a chance to be for something."

Until recently, Bush did not pretend that diplomacy was his thing. Talk to foreign leaders and officials or U.S. diplomats who have observed Bush in negotiating sessions, and you get a picture of a president who disdains bargaining and the essence of give-and-take.

"He is certainly smart enough to do it," says one person who has worked with Bush in such situations. "He would always get the first point across. But when there was pushing back, he didn't follow up with the rest of the argument or proposal that had been prepared. He just seemed not to care enough to do it."

Bush encountered such pushback from the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs on his Middle East peace tour this month, according to a variety of diplomatic sources. Open skepticism greeted his appeals to "moderate" Arab states to provide the political and financial support that might enable Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to move forward on peace.

"We are not going to sink a lot of money into West Bank and Gaza projects that will just be blown up by the Israelis in a few months when things go wrong again," one Arab leader reportedly said to Bush. The president was also told that Gulf countries want Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to agree in writing to the borders of a Palestinian state before they can fully support the Bush effort.

That is a tall order for Bush to deliver. And his strategy of gathering friendly Arab states to support peace with Israel and to confront Iran was dealt a new setback last week when Hamas operatives blew open the wall that separates the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

The blast also reverberated through the Arab states that Bush has been courting, especially Egypt. In Damascus, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal called on Egypt to stop cooperating with Israel in policing the Gaza frontier and to join the Palestinians in establishing new international controls there.

"I am addressing all the Arabs: Don't say it as an excuse that there is an international agreement" regulating the border, Meshal said. Past Egyptian governments had the courage to defy international pressure, he noted in a clear effort to shame Cairo into action.

Hamas is in fact calling the great Arab bluff that has prevailed for more than half a century. Arab leaders profess to harbor nothing but feelings of brotherhood and unity for the Palestinians and their cause. But fear actually drives their policies -- fear of the radicalism of Palestinian politics, of the relatively high levels of education and sophistication of the refugee populations scattered in Arab lands in 1948 and then again in 1967, and of public opinion in their own countries.

Arab leaders were telling Bush in their pushback -- albeit in code -- that the Palestinian refugees and their plight are the creation and responsibility of the West. Arab states will not take financial, social or political responsibility for the Palestinians just to help out Bush, Abbas, Israel -- or even the Palestinians.

Bush will return to the region in May to take part in Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations and perhaps to reinvigorate his peace initiative. He will need to. At the moment, it is on life support.

Jim Hoagland