In the immediate aftermath of last week’s Annapolis Conference, President Bush told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that there was no reason for him to go to the region to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. “Going to the region in itself is not going to unstick negotiations,” Bush said, seeming annoyed by the suggestion that he should get out more. “This idea about somehow you’re supposed to travel and therefore good things are going to happen is just not realistic.”
But earlier this week, the President apparently had a change of heart, with White House National Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirming that Bush will visit Israel in early January. This marks a significant shift in strategy: Bush had given the strong impression that he intended to monitor bilateral negotiations from afar, only getting involved if necessary to resolve impasses. Perhaps realizing that impasses—and thus his direct involvement—were inevitable, Bush wisely chose to visit the region now. Yet the most important outcome of his visit will not be resolving intricate details regarding refugees or Jerusalem. Rather, Bush’s visit can serve a critical public diplomacy purpose, so long as it is used to reach out to Israelis and Palestinians, encouraging both to support their leaders’ bid for peace.
In Israel, Bush will find a public that is deeply skeptical of Annapolis, having little faith in Olmert and, arguably, less faith in a Palestinian body politic still heavily controlled by Hamas. Yet, for Bush, the Israeli public is winnable: Bush has continually iterated his understanding for Israelis’ security concerns, and he is often regarded as the most pro-Israel president of all time. Bush’s visit to Israel will demonstrate his seriousness regarding Annapolis, possibly convincing Israelis that peace can—and therefore must—be sealed during his presidency.
Among Palestinians, Bush faces a much tougher public diplomacy outlook. The Palestinian public views the Bush administration as the enabler of everything that encumbers their livelihoods: the security barrier, checkpoints, roadblocks, and curfews. Palestinians further view Bush’s democracy agenda as hypocritical, given the U.S.-led isolation of Hamas that followed its 2006 electoral victory. Finally, the Palestinian public views the peace process cynically, and will ask how the recent announcement that Israel will build more housing units in Har Homa—headline news throughout the Arab world yesterday—jives with land-for-peace.
Bush’s visit to the region is unlikely to change any of these realities immediately—indeed, that is not the point of public diplomacy. However, if Bush visits Ramallah, engages with members of Palestinian civil society, demonstrates sympathy for Palestinian pain, and insists that its remedy lies in serious engagement with Israel, he will be taking the first step towards showing Palestinians that the peace process will seek their advancement. He could further use these conversations to express his dismay for Hamas’s ascendancy, and argue that it was Hamas’s suicide bombings—and no American-Israeli conspiracy—that prompted the West Bank barrier’s construction.
For this reason, Bush’s trip to the region must emphasize media interviews and meetings with Israeli and Palestinian citizens. Indeed, if the administration merely intends a series of closed-door meetings with Olmert and Abbas in warmer climates, an important opportunity to advance the credibility of U.S. policy will be lost.