President Bush’s visit to the Middle East invites very mixed reactions. He arrived to tell Israelis and Palestinians that they each deserve a state. Fine. More than that, he anticipated “a signed peace treaty by the time I leave office” — that is, in a matter of months. The pursuit of peace is admirable, and cannot be achieved without some American input, but promissory notes of this sort have a way of becoming hostages to fortune.
Even if a peace treaty were signed, mechanisms would not exist to enforce it. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is mistrusted, and stays in office by the skin of his teeth. President Bush calls for a pull-out from the West Bank, but if this means forcible dismantling settlements and the division of Jerusalem, Olmert cannot deliver it, and any attempt to do so would dangerously destabilize Israel. With grim symmetry, Mahmoud Abbas is unable to deliver the Palestinians. Divided between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinians engage in low-level civil war, and are in no condition to form a society, never mind a state. Every day, Hamas fires rockets and mortars at Israel, Hezbollah threatens to do the same, and Abbas is powerless to act.
Besides, there is precedent. At the close of his presidency, Bill Clinton attempted the very maneuver that Bush is presently undertaking. Another intifada was all that came of it. The parties are locked in a historic struggle. Outsiders can exert influence and pressure for good or ill, but they cannot resolve it until such time as some other factor changes the interests of the parties.
The rise to regional power of Iran may well be that other factor. A nuclear-armed Iran will dominate the Middle East. Powerless to resist, incapable of uniting, the Arabs of the Gulf are very frightened. The Iranians know that they are on a winning streak. The last U.S. National Intelligence Estimate — which misleadingly implies that Iran’s leaders no longer desire nuclear weapons, when every sign points to the contrary — furthers Iranian ambition. So confident do the mullahs feel of ultimate victory that they risk staging attacks on American warships.
In this gathering crisis, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is marginal, although seeming to act on it helps our friends in the Gulf ally with us against Iran. Unfortunately, for many a long year, the State Department has actually believed that peace in the Middle East is predicated on settling this particular dispute. We hope President Bush is not really as dewy-eyed about this process as his words suggest.