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Bush visits the good and bad guys in the Middle East

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maria Appakova) – President George W. Bush is going to visit the Holy Land – Israel and the territory controlled by the Palestinian National Authority – for the first time since becoming president.

Before that he went to Israel only once, in 1998, as the Governor of Texas. This is surprising, considering that Israel is the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East, and Palestinian-Israeli settlement is central to Washington’s policy. Nonetheless, this is the first visit and even it would have hardly been possible if the international meeting in Annapolis (U.S.) had not decided to resume the Palestinian-Israeli talks after almost a seven-year break.

The main reason for Bush’s trip to the Middle East is to demonstrate support for this process, although he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are realistically assessing the situation and do not promise any breakthroughs.

Bush is also going to discuss measures to resist Iran’s “aggressive ambitions.” Both the United States and Israel see it as the greatest threat to the Middle East. The Iranian topic will be raised in the latter half of the tour, which will last from January 9 to 16. Apart from Israel and Palestine, the president will visit Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. A change in his itinerary is possible and Bush may also decide to visit Iraq. Some media wrote that he may choose to go to Lebanon, but it may aggravate the situation in that country on the eve of yet another attempt to elect a president. In any event, his visit to the Middle East will not add tranquility to the region.

The tour was preceded by a provocation in the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian boats surrounded U.S. naval ships and sent them threatening radio calls. One of the American captains decided to open fire but the Iranians disappeared. Just a few more minutes, and an Iranian-U.S. armed conflict, which has been discussed throughout the Bush Presidency, could have become a reality.

An assault on UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and shooting at Israel’s border region from its territory also came as unpleasant surprises, if not provocation for the U.S. president. If the consequences of these incidents had been more serious, the status quo at the Lebanese-Israeli border, which was painstakingly established after the war in the summer of 2006, would have been violated and Bush would have had to cancel his visit. The Israeli government would have had no time for talks with the Palestinians. But even without such provocations, Middle East settlement may be wrecked any time.

Almost a month and a half have passed since the meeting in Annapolis, but the Palestinians and the Israelis have not gone further than mutual claims. Most heated debates have been caused by Israel’s plan to build houses in the occupied territories – in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank of the River Jordan and Jerusalem’s eastern quarters. In a bid to overcome the crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had ordered to stop the implementation of projects on the West Bank but not yet in Eastern Jerusalem. During Bush’s visit, Israel is expected to announce new concessions in this sphere, in particular, confirm its commitment to dismantle illegal Jewish settlements.

However, this step will not resolve the problem because the main dispute is not about the building of new settlements, but about the legality of additional construction in the already existing ones. The Israelis call this process “natural growth,” while the Palestinians see it as “consolidation of the occupation.” Bush is not likely to settle this dispute. All he can do is to constantly motivate both sides to continue talking, despite their differences. Nobody knows how to do this because disputes over details are cropping up all the time. Nevertheless, the talks are going on even despite Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip in response to the recent shootings of Israeli territory by Hamas militants.

Bush was pleased to learn about the recent decision made by Olmert and PNA President Mahmoud Abbas to instruct their negotiating teams to start direct and permanent debates on all issues of Palestinian-Israeli settlement across the board, but the implementation of this decision is another matter.

Paradoxically, the main problem is that while encouraging Israel’s rapprochement with the Palestinians and some Arab countries, Bush’s visit and his entire policy in the Middle East are aggravating the split within the Muslim world. The Palestinian example, when the Israelis are talking with Abbas and fighting with Hamas (the latter two are either struggling with each other or trying to come to terms) is only one part of the picture. The situation is much the same in Lebanon, Iraq and potentially everywhere in the Middle East, including Arab-Iranian relations.

Needless to say, the United States is not solely responsible for this situation, but Bush’s maniacal drive to divide the world into “the good and bad guys” has played its role. The recent tour sums up his Middle East policy, which he launched in 2002 by proclaiming the Axis of Evil (North Korea, Iraq and Iran).

Highlighting the importance of his trip to the Americans, Bush said: “At its core, the battle unfolding in the Middle East is more than a clash of arms; it is an ideological struggle. On one side are the forces of terror and death and on the other are tens of millions of ordinary people who want a free and peaceful life for their children. The future of the Middle East depends on the outcome of this struggle and so does the security of the United States.”

It is hard to dispute these words but there is one “but” – in the Middle East there are no clear-cut borders not only between states, but also between “the good and bad guys” and Bush is not likely to consider this.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.