The Lame-duck Syndrome

After the Republican party's crushing defeats of this past week, a crippled Bush will be encouraged to rethink his policy in the Middle East.

WASHINGTON - Losing the majority in the Congressional elections does not always portend a defeat in the presidential elections. Some 12 years ago, the Democrats lost both houses of Congress; two years later, their candidate, Bill Clinton, handily defeated Bob Dole and won a second term in the White House.

Clinton also proved that nowhere is it etched in stone that a president must become a lame duck in his last two years in office insofar as foreign relations in general and the Middle East in particular are concerned. The Clinton blueprint for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was made public after George W. Bush was elected and was preparing for his inaugural ceremony.

When Bush entered the White House, in January 2001, he saw in his mind's eye Ronald Reagan, who had put an end to the Soviet "evil empire" and had made the United States the world's only superpower. The September 11, 2001 attacks presented the new president with a challenge that could have placed him in the same category as the heroes of the war films he enjoys watching. Instead of wasting his time with trivialities such as resolving the boring neighbors' conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he would strike at the "axis of evil" and change the face of the Middle East. Instead of sending mediators to Damascus, he would foment regime change in Baghdad.

If the price of Bill Clinton's rashness in the Middle East peace process is now being paid by Palestinians and Israelis, the price of Bush's arrogance is being tallied in the blood of American soldiers. The results of the midterm elections and Bush's plunge in the polls are a signal to the Republicans that being mired in Iraq is heralding the beginning of the end of their rule.

It is becoming clear to Bush and his conservative bedfellows that getting out of the Iraqi hell will be a lot harder than getting into it. A U.S. flight from Iraq will likely turn that country into a springboard for Iran - an oil power that brandishes a nuclear and terrorist threat - to encroach across the Middle East. All that will remain of Bush's democratization vision will be a nightmare of the assault mounted by Shi'a religious fanatics, armed with weapons of mass destruction, on the moderate Sunni regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Officials in Washington are calling this, with macabre humor, the "sushi war." The order to pack up and withdraw will energize the global jihad, which, in the wake of the war in Iraq, has begun to strike roots in Sunni Islam; its buds can be seen in the territories, too.

Every atrocity photo of dead Palestinian children, victims of the Israeli occupation, deepens the influence of these groups on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A senior Western diplomat who is well-informed on the subject told me that Iran and Syria were the ones torpedoing the prisoner exchange, in order to prevent the possibility of renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. They have long since understood what Washington has only recently begun to internalize: American activity that will bring about the conversion of violence into a political process can improve the status of the United States and strengthen its allies in the Arab world.

In its search for a diplomatic plan that will not evoke the name Clinton, the U.S. administration discovered the Arab peace initiative of March 2002. Someone remembered that the important message that emanated from Beirut was also part of the roadmap. It promises normal relations between all the Arab League states and Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 borders. The two documents offer a just and agreed solution to the refugee problem. The only elements that object to these initiatives are Iran, Al-Qaida, Hamas, and Israel, too.

Bush's well-wishers are suggesting to him that he remove Israel from this dubious group. They are imploring him to follow in the footsteps of his father, who marked the conclusion of the first Gulf War with the Madrid peace conference. Will the son listen to them, or will he be attentive to Christian evangelists and Jewish lobbyists, "friends of Israel," who will take the wind out of his sails and remind him how, a year later, they sent his parents home to the ranch and his party into the opposition?