To many Americans, President Bush's endgame pilgrimage last week to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories was a ho-hum event. For Bush, however, his first trip as president to the region was a last-ditch push to burnish his Middle East legacy.
If we measure the substance and sincerity of Bush's efforts, we can conclude that the president is engaging in futility in one of the most politically and religiously fractious places on the globe.
Overshadowing the trip and its goal of "a comprehensive peace (between the Israelis and the Palestinians) signed by the end of this year" is Bush's seven-year refusal to play a hands-on role as an honest broker.
Even now, with a year left in office, Bush is being disingenuous by making contradictory demands on the parties. Israel is being asked to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank, but the Jewish state is not expected to do so until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has stopped rockets from being fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
The problem? Abbas does not control Gaza in any way.
Hamas defeated Abbas and his Fatah party in elections and militarily ousted him from Gaza, leaving him to run the West Bank. Why Bush placed such a demand on the weak and humiliated leader, I do not know.
What I do know is that if the Israelis and Palestinians are to sign a fair peace agreement before he leaves office, Bush, with cooperation of other governments in the Arab world and in the West, must get tough with both sides.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was the national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter, should be advising Bush. Brzezinski played a major role in crafting the 1979 Camp David Accords that brought a lasting peace deal between Israel and Egypt. In a recent column for the Financial Times, he outlined what he calls "four fundamental principles" and "bitter pills" on which a fair peace must be based.
First, Palestinian refugees must not expect to return to the state of Israel. "A bitter pill for the Palestinians but one they must digest, for the Israelis cannot be expected to commit national suicide for the sake of peace," Brzezinski writes. "Some compensation and acknowledgement of their suffering, however, should be part of the settlement. The international community, which needs peace in the Middle East, could pitch in."
Second, Israelis and Palestinians must amicably share Jerusalem. Such an agreement would include a section of the old city and the golden mosque as the Palestinian capital. "A bitter pill for the Israelis but one they must digest, for otherwise the peace will never be viewed by Palestinians and Arabs more generally as legitimate," Brzezinski argues. "Joint arrangements would have to be agreed (upon) to prevent the city from being split altogether and that could include a special regimen for the holy sites."
Third, Brzezinski writes, the parties must craft changes to the 1967 lines to take into account "territorial compensation" for adjustments. "(This agreement is) designed to include in Israel the main urban settlements located near the final frontiers; and the phased evacuation of Israeli settlers from the settlements that will be in the Palestinian state, with some Palestinian refugees perhaps then resettled in the new state."
Fourth, a demilitarized Palestinian state should be created, complete with an international security agency inside its borders. Brzezinski: "Perhaps the United States might consider a permanent U.S. presence along the Jordan river as a form of security reassurance to the Israelis. That should address the Israeli sense of vulnerability without arousing Palestinian anger that some aspects of the Israeli occupation would persist after the peace treaty."
Opinion polls indicate that such a plan would be acceptable to large numbers of Israelis and to Palestinians in the West Bank. The rest of the world would support such an equitable plan, Brzezinski said.
The next U.S. president, who assumes office next January, must not follow Bush's do-nothing example. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which spills over into all Middle East relations and policies, requires the constant vigilance, courage and sincerity that Bush did not or could not deliver.
(Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell(at)sptimes.com.)