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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 January 2008, 02:18 GMT
Bush and the Mid-East legacy
By Matthew Price
BBC News, New York

A year before George W Bush hands over the reins of power in Washington DC to his successor, he is embarking on his first trip as president to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

US President George W Bush - 7 Jan 2008
Mr Bush says he is optimistic about his visit
The question though has to be, why only now?

After all, this is a president who has made much during his time in power of his commitment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel.

Is the timing just a simple case of an unpopular president desperately seeking a legacy?

In recent days President Bush has given a number of interviews to Middle Eastern newspapers.

Asked by the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot whether he saw a chance to sign a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, he replied: "Yes, I do, before I leave - I'm an optimistic guy."

Presumably he meant before he leaves office.

I think we could assume that would be legacy enough.

The thing you can bet on is that almost no-one in the Middle East believes it will happen.

Three-fold strategy

So where does President Bush get his "optimism" from?

Ahead of the trip, his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told journalists the president was hoping to build on advances made at the meeting in Annapolis late last year.

That meeting basically ended with a commitment from the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to continue meeting one another.

I can assure you that what looks good on paper in Washington looks less convincing on the streets of the Arab world

They have had one tense meeting since then.

Still, the president is hoping a three-fold strategy could help lead to that elusive peace deal.

First, encourage both leaders to arrive at a shared vision of a future Palestinian state.

At the same time, help the Palestinians build working institutions so they can enforce security themselves. In addition, improve Israeli-Arab relations across the Middle East.

Mr Hadley says it is the culmination of a process the president has been working on since he took office.

"[He] has been working fairly consistently over seven years to put in place the building blocks of what now offers an opportunity for peace," he told reporters.

It has been hard though to see any of those "building blocks" over the past few years on the ground in the Middle East.

Help from Iran

I remember speaking to the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat back in January 2005, just after Mahmoud Abbas had won the Palestinian presidential election. He was succeeding Yasser Arafat - a man Mr Bush would not work with.

Mr Abbas was seen then, as now, as a moderate. Mr Erekat told me the international community had to immediately "show they would support the moderate forces".

Ehud Olmert (l), George W Bush and Mahmud Abbas (r)
The three leaders have agreed to try to secure a peace deal in 2008
"And if they don't?" I asked.

"Extremism will win."

Mahmoud Abbas did not get the international support he wanted. A year later I covered the parliamentary election victory of Hamas.

Indeed it is only comparatively recently, that the US and others have been seen to fully embrace Mr Abbas as a "man of peace" as the popular slogan has it.

Still, better late than never you might say, and Mr Bush does have one big thing in his favour now.

When it comes to trying to get the Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on side, the Iranians may be helping.

That is because those states fear a nuclear-armed Iran - if that is indeed where Iranian ambitions lie - just as much as Israel does.

Mr Bush hopes that gives him some leverage. He will continue to promise the Gulf states security. In return he will expect those states' support for his Israeli-Palestinian initiative.

He will also hope to encourage them, and the Saudis and Egyptians for that matter, to try to open up their societies to democracy, and political liberalisation.

It is loosely called his "freedom agenda". As Stephen Hadley put it, "we need to promote democracy and freedom as a counterpoint... to the ideology of the terrorists".

It is a good idea, but having lived in both the Middle East and the United States in the past four years, I can assure you that what looks good on paper in Washington looks less convincing on the streets of the Arab world.

There people will tell you that the "ideology of the terrorists", or "resistance" as many put it, stems from big injustices that first need to be addressed.

And many add that until Mr Bush, and that unknown successor of his, grasp that, there will never be any progress towards a lasting peace.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Background to President Bush's visit to the region





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