- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

President Bush’s upcoming Mideast tour may be well intentioned, but the stage is set for a dark comedy — not a feel-good play. In the month since the Annapolis conference, Hamas has further solidified its control over chaotic Gaza and barely a day passes without Qassam rockets hitting the southern Israeli town of Sderot.

So far Sderot (and with it, any remaining hopes for the peace process) has been “lucky.” Damage to the city is usually slight, but eventually luck will run out and the Qassams will wound Israeli schoolchildren and not just their buildings. Hamas continues to extend the Qassams’ range, hitting the coastal city of Ashkelon, and they soon will be able to reach the even larger city of Ashdod. So far, Israel has succeeded in interdicting attempts to fire rockets from the West Bank toward the Tel Aviv suburbs, but the law of averages dictates that they too will come under fire.

With its cities under attack, Israel’s reticence to launch a major ground operation in Gaza will disappear, despite the heavy anticipated loss of life on both sides. Not that it will achieve a long-lasting effect. It will not, but public uproar will force government action. In the West Bank, the Fatah-headed Palestinian Authority (PA) governs in name only, its rule contingent on Israel’s military control and pacification of the extremists.

Flush with promises of $7.5 billion in international aid, the likelihood is that these billions will be poured down the drain of Palestinian dysfunctionality, rather than being used to strengthen the PA. Despite good intentions, with these trends we are at at least as likely to see a Hamas-controlled West Bank as we are to see diplomatic progress toward peace.

The good news, on which all hopes are pinned, is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are probably the best-meaning Palestinian leaders we will see for many years to come. Intentions, however, are insufficient. The sad reality is that they do not have the power to make or enforce the necessary decisions domestically or vis-a-vis Israel.

In Israel, Mr. Bush will find a premier, Ehud Olmert, who is desirous of achieving a historic settlement based on return of most of the West Bank, but who has limited room maneuvering due to a fragile coalition. He already has trouble fulfilling even Israel’s minimal road map commitments. Just days after the Bush visit, the final report of the commission investigating the failings of the 2006 war against Hezbollah is due out. Though Mr. Olmert will probably survive it, he will be further weakened.

Mr. Bush will also find an Israel stunned and feeling betrayed by the recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that Iran has suspended its military nuclear program. Israel’s security establishment remains convinced that Iran is actively pursuing this option, while the public, long used to viewing Iran as an existential threat, is totally bewildered by this abrupt change.

Mr. Bush’s Israeli interlocutors will be at pains to understand his strategy on Iran for the remainder of his presidency and its affects on that of the next administration. The question uppermost in their minds will be whether Israel is now truly on its own against Iran, and if so what its options are. Events in Pakistan and the danger of a loss of control over its “Islamic bomb” will also weigh heavily on their minds.

Given this setting, the president cannot shape events, but he can prevent further deterioration. In the absence of active high-level American engagement, Mr. Abbas’s and Mr. Fayyad’s imminent demise will hasten, and spiraling violence in Gaza with a Hamas West Bank takeover will portend the death of the “peace process” for many years to come. Iran, unchecked by American resolve, will be emboldened,increasing its aggressive actions in Iraq and against Israel. Israel, feeling abandoned in the face of an existential Iranian threat, may be forced into precipitate action. Mr. Bush may not shape the course of events, but in these circumstances, even a moderating affect will be of considerable importance.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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