Situation Assessment / What Bush Can and Can't Accomplish

All it took was for the engines of Air Force One to fire up to produce two major breakthroughs in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The first was the announcement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that they were willing to start talks dealing with the conflict's core issues. The second was Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman's promise not to cause a coalition crisis by withdrawing from the government during Bush's visit.

Both events illustrate Bush's limitations during his second term: He can push Olmert and Abbas to talk about an agreement "defining a Palestinian state," but he has to come to Jerusalem himself to keep Lieberman seated in the government. Still, Lieberman's threat to destabilize Olmert's coalition, like that of Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, limits Israel's maneuverability considerably. Instead of forming one committee on borders, another on the question of Jerusalem and a third to deal with the Palestinian refugees, Israel insisted that all three issues be placed under the authority of a special committee headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, former PA prime minister Ahmed Qureia. This strategy will allow Olmert to tell Lieberman that the issue of dividing Jerusalem has not yet been raised.

Bush's first visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority comes at a time when neither the security nor the political winds are blowing in his favor. The "spirit of Annapolis" is eroding fast, and the parties have plunged into a series of mutual recriminations and stonewalling. Encouraged by their success in embarrassing Israel over building in the settlements, the Palestinians have launched a new campaign complaining about Israel Defense Forces operations in the West Bank. The U.S. accepted the Palestinian claim that Israeli incursions into Nablus undermine PA forces in the city.

Gaza presents a much more complicated issue for Bush. The fighting there is escalating, and the U.S. has no real answer to Hamas's continued arms smuggling or the firing of Qassam rockets at Israel. Until a real solution is found to the rocket fire on the western Negev, Israel cannot withdraw from the West Bank, since this would bring Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion International Airport into rocket range. If Bush wants progress in the West Bank, he had better focus on finding a solution for Gaza first.

Olmert will talk to Bush about four key issues: moving the talks with the Palestinians forward, ensuring that Israel's security needs are met in any future West Bank settlement; the American intelligence assessment that Iran has abandoned its nuclear arms program; and a strategic analysis of Israel's security situation. But one should not expect any major concessions by the United States: No preliminary discussions were held before the visit, and Bush's itinerary makes any gestures to Israel difficult. At the conclusion of the Israeli leg of his tour, Bush is slated to visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. If he makes promises to Olmert in Jerusalem, he will have to make similar promises to Arab leaders.

That is why Bush's current visit is aimed at creating a positive atmosphere and showing presidential involvement in the peace process. Israel will have to wait for Bush's next visit, scheduled to coincide with its 60th anniversary, to receive the president's "going-away present."