By Ghassan Khatib
There is consensus among Arab politicians and analysts that the past seven-and-a-half years of US President George W. Bush have been the worst period of US policy for the Middle East in history. The Palestinian-Israeli process deteriorated into violent confrontations; the occupation of Iraq was disastrous on both immediate and strategic levels while the general trend of radicalization combined with stagnation in economic and social development can be attributed at least partially to the US administration’s approach to the Middle East in addition to poor governance by America’s allies in power in most Arab countries.
However, there appear to be differing expectations for the remaining period of Bush’s tenure, especially since the administration has been showing greater interest in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. That and a few additional new developments are causing some politicians and observers to suggest that there are opportunities to be seized in the remaining months. Apparently Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are among them.
Others believe that Bush is now a lame-duck president and is not in a position to deliver on anything anywhere, especially in the Middle East. For them, this last period until the end of the year might encourage some parties to exploit the weakness of the US administration in order to do things, or avoid doing things, that wouldn’t normally be possible.
The last few months have witnessed some unusual developments that are not consistent with the trends of the last few years. Israel and Syria have resumed indirect negotiations in spite of previous American objections. Hamas conducted indirect negotiations with Israel that led to a ceasefire agreement in Gaza. Palestinians and Israelis have been engaged in renewed political negotiations. And there are signs that Iranian-American tensions over Iraq are easing, manifested in a decline in Sunni-Shi’ite tensions and confrontations in Iraq.
These developments have convinced some politicians that Bush and his administration have realized that they will leave office with a disastrous legacy and are now looking for some notable achievements to mitigate the verdict of history. This realization arose with the thorough and significant Baker-Hamilton report, which concluded that the way the American administration has handled the different regional issues is responsible for the disastrous overall deterioration and that the administration needs to reconsider all its policies, especially on Iraq, including the Iranian component, and Palestine.
Others see the new regional developments almost in reverse. To them, these trends have come about not because of any new thinking on behalf of the US administration, but in spite of the US administration. Hence, for example, the Turkish initiative to mediate between Israel and Syria can be explained as being possible only as a result of the lame duck status of the US administration.
In Palestine there are politicians who believe that this is a year of opportunity because of the weakness of the American administration. Hence, perhaps, the timing of Abbas’ initiative to renew a reconciliation dialogue with Hamas, something Washington has staunchly opposed in the past but did not, or could not, stand against this time.
Regardless of how these next few months are viewed, however, the level of damage accumulated over the last seven years and the shortage of time left makes it unrealistic to expect any significant breakthroughs, especially since the weakness of the US administration coincides with the weakness of leadership in the region, including both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Significant achievements are possible only if other international powers, i.e., European countries and Russia, can enter and fill the vacuum that the US administration has already left.
– Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. (Published in Bitterlemons – bitterlemons.org – July 7, 2008)