The most important news of the week is not the worsening of Qassam rocket attacks against Sderot, and not even the spat between the prime minister and the defense minister. The White House announcement that U.S. President George W. Bush is due to arrive in Jordan next week is much more important than yet another clash between Israelis and Palestinians, or among Israelis themselves.
The official purpose of Bush's visit to the region is a meeting with the prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki. The American administration would like "to expedite the transfer of security responsibility in Iraq to the local government," a code for the commencement of an American disengagement from the Bush military adventure in the Middle East. His meeting with al-Maliki is reminiscent of the American exit from Vietnam, where the U.S. also began the "transfer of authority" to its surrogate in Saigon.
We can assume that Bush informed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of his intentions to limit the American presence in Iraq during their meeting last week. That would explain Olmert's controversial statements regarding a rushed American pullout from Iraq that would "undermine stability" in the region. From Israel's point of view, there is tremendous significance to the thinning American presence in the Middle East, at a time when Iran is getting stronger and is seeking to form a regional alliance against America and its allies.
However, what is lacking in the Bush visit is even more important than what it will entail. The White House informed the Prime Minister's Office yesterday that the president will visit Jordan for 12 hours only, will concentrate on issues relevant to Iraq, and will not dedicate any time to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the American announcement, the U.S. president will be minutes away from Jerusalem, by plane, and will not drop by. He did not even invite Olmert or Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for a meeting in Jordan, either together or apart from each other.
It is not clear whether the Americans will keep this timetable. It may be that their cold behavior is meant to encourage Olmert and Abbas to meet, giving the impression of a diplomatic dialogue. Administration envoys David Welch and Elliot Abrams are due to visit Israel next week. Perhaps they will seek out a formula for a summit in Jordan, or they may just make do with a "maintenance" run, with no real results.
Two months ago, Bush considered coming to the region on a diplomatic mission, in an effort to restart the peace process. Last week, during a meeting with reporters in Washington, Olmert hinted that he would agree to participate in a "peace summit" with some Arab leaders. If Bush sticks to the plan that was announced, and ignores Olmert and Abbas, this will mean one thing: the American administration does not believe in the chances of furthering any process between Israel and the Palestinians, who are marching toward a very serious escalation in the Gaza Strip.
Bush was burned in his previous visit to the region, at the Aqaba Summit in June 2003, which only resulted in nice photo-ops. He will not endanger his declining prestige in another useless effort to bring Olmert and Abbas together - two leaders who lost the support of their communities. At least Olmert is in charge in Israel, notwithstanding his domestic problems; Abbas is not able to do a thing. Still, it is difficult to believe Bush will pass through the region and move on, without saying "hello" to his friends.
In the absence of a diplomatic process, Israel is being dragged into a major conflict in Gaza in an effort to "significantly reduce the Qassam attacks," as Olmert told the Cabinet, and to minimize the smuggling of weapons from Sinai into Gaza. Those who expected to see a "Defensive Shield 2" emerging from the cabinet meeting yesterday were disappointed. But the decisions announced mean an escalation in the response to the rocket attacks, including the targeting of Hamas institutions, which until recently were out of bounds. If the rocket attacks continue, Jerusalem warns, the Israel Defense Forces will embark on a "major" operation the likes of which Gaza has not seen. Under the current circumstances, it is hard to see how this bloody clash can be avoided. It appears as though even Bush does not to believe in any other outcome.
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