I have to disagree with you, David. President Bush’s current visit to the Middle East has a remarkably different feel from his trip to the region earlier this year–and not just because he’s foregoing photo-ops with unsheathed swords. Indeed, whereas Bush’s January jaunt overwhelmingly focused on bolstering a flimsy Arab coalition against Iran through an even shakier Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he has spent far more time practicing public diplomacy this time around. Insofar as preaching peace and democracy to dictators that have long undermined both was always a total waste of time, this is a welcome–and long overdue–development.
The high point in this public outreach campaign came yesterday in Jerusalem. While addressing a conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, President Bush declared American support for Israel in no uncertain terms. The speech was remarkable for its utter friendliness: Bush saluted Israeli democracy, joked about its contentious political culture, and said that he was “thrilled to be here with one of America’s greatest friends”–without a single mention of the Palestinians.
If Bush’s Annapolis pet-project has any chance of succeeding before he leaves office, this is precisely what Israelis need to hear. Historically, Israeli leaders have been most willing to compromise with their adversaries when American support is unambiguously strongest. In this vein, Bush’s speech beautifully set the stage for the more serious address he will deliver before the Knesset today, in which he will “talk about the day when … every child in the Middle East can live in peace and live in freedom”-in other words, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As Israelis are deeply skeptical of this process, Bush’s strong display of support should provide some reassurance.
Sadly, Bush has been unable to replicate his success before Israelis when addressing Arab publics. The latest failure came Monday, when an interviewer from Egypt’s Dream TV asked Bush to respond to Jimmy Carter’s assertion that the Palestinians had suffered more than the Israelis; Bush responded:
Well, everybody has got their opinions. I just happen to believe that I’m in a position to help move the definition of a state, which will help solve the problem in the long run. I’m the first President ever to have articulated a two-state solution, two states living side by side in peace. And my only thing I want to tell your listeners is that I’m going to drive hard, along with Secretary Rice and other people in my administration, to see if we can’t get the Palestinians and Israelis to agree on what that state will look like.
Here, Bush missed an opportunity to say what the Palestinians need to hear. Just as Israelis needed to hear that the United States stood firmly behind it, Palestinians need to hear that we feel their pain–and are committed to doing something about it. Instead, by reverting to the uninspired tropes of the two-state solution, Bush gave the Palestinians–already deeply skeptical of the peace process–another reason to either roll their eyes or turn off the television.