Seven years after taking office, U.S. President George W. Bush is making his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But if he does not bring with him a serious plan for concluding a full peace agreement by the end of his term next year, he might as well stay home.
The urgency cannot be overstated. Bush knows full well that if a peace agreement is not achieved in 2008, it won't be done in 2009 and perhaps for a very long time afterward. This is because of the political timetable in both the Palestinian Authority and the U.S.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will complete his term in January 2009 and has already announced he will not seek another term; no one knows who will replace him and whether his successor will share the same commitment to peace. In the meantime, no matter who the next American president will be, he or she will not hurry to engage in this very sensitive region, which has proved such a disappointment to previous administrations.
President Bush's years in the White House were difficult years for the Middle East, which saw an escalation of violence and a complete halt to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon did not believe in negotiations with the Palestinians, and he succeeded in convincing Bush that Arafat was another Osama bin Laden and that boycotting him was part of the war against terror. For their part, the Palestinians did their fair share as well, refusing to cooperate with any attempt to calm the area.
Bush's few attempted efforts at advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace were ill-witted and ultimately deleterious. Bush's support for Sharon's problematic idea of a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and his insistence on allowing Hamas to participate in the Palestinian elections ultimately hurt - rather than helped - the prospects of peace in the region. The road map, which is an international initiative only by name since it was conceived and drafted mostly in Washington, was yet another colossal failure. Officials on all sides may continue to spout its name, but it is destined to be off the table the very moment that Bush leaves the Oval Office.
Bush's late awakening has not inspired any great hope, but an effective American move could give the process a chance. If Bush is determined to build on the Annapolis Summit and achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians within the next 12 months, he must ensure that he is in a position to clinch a deal by December. Why December 2008? Because this will be the last month of Bush's term in office, and, to judge by recent history, this is the month that American presidents allow themselves to push for a bold move in Israeli-Arab peacemaking.
This was the case with Ronald Reagan, who initiated the dialogue with the PLO in December 1988, and this was the case with Bill Clinton, who used the last month to put his parameters for peace on the table.
A year is a very short time for a diplomatic move of such complexity, and Bush's visit to the region is thus critical. For this reason, if his visit is to be of any consequence, Bush must bring with him more than empty words - he must bring a plan of action.
Such a plan would be the setting up of a regional headquarters charged with dealing with all aspects of the process during the next 12 months.
This American headquarters for peace would deal with the security and military aspects, helping primarily to build up a Palestinian security mechanism; monitor the two sides' implementation of their commitments on the ground (including the settlement freeze and the struggle against the armed militias); and ensure the continuity of the diplomatic negotiations while presenting bridging proposals, if necessary.
A visit in and of itself will not do the trick. Moving the parties toward an agreement within the coming year requires the presence of a permanently based and accessible apparatus that will engage in hands-on diplomacy, set timetables for achieving the goals set by Bush and try to ensure that the sides meet them.
If Bush comes to our region with such a concrete agenda, his visit may well mark a constructive step toward peace. If, on the other hand, all he intends to do is utter his usual platitudes about the hard work that needs to be done and the courage he sees in the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, he might as well save the American taxpayers the airfare.
The writer is a Knesset member and outgoing chairman of the Meretz-Yachad Party. He is a former justice minister and the architect of the unofficial Geneva Initiative.