- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 11, 2008

On his first trip to Israel, earlier this year, President Bush visited the Sea of Galilee, where Matthew’s Gospel says Jesus Christ walked on water.

During his second trip to the Jewish state later this week, to celebrate its 60th birthday, the president will visit Masada, the mountaintop fortress where Josephus’ “The Wars of the Jews” says nearly 1,000 Jewish rebels committed mass suicide in A.D. 73 rather than surrender to Roman occupiers.

The contrast between the two sightseeing trips is fitting.

Since Mr. Bush’s first visit, hopeful talk of a miracle — a Middle East peace agreement — has been replaced by a renewal of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians. The prospects for a peace deal by the end of Mr. Bush’s term have dimmed, and the mood in Israel is by many accounts grim.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be on the verge of being forced from office by a corruption probe and has been unable to curb the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, a key component of negotiations.

The Muslim terrorist group Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip, despite Israeli efforts to starve it of resources through a blockade of all but the most necessary foods and fuels. Hamas continues to shoot rockets into southern Israel, prompting retaliations from the Israeli army that often kill civilians alongside guerrillas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has made little to no progress in reining in Hamas, but compared with Mr. Olmert, he remains the stronger of the two leaders.

“Neither leader has the power to make peace,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

When the White House launched a new round of peace talks last fall during a two-day summit in Annapolis, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas pledged to agree by the end of Mr. Bush’s term on the contours of a permanent Palestinian state.

“The time is right. The cause is just. And with hard effort, I know they can succeed,” Mr. Bush said then.

But the subsequent months were marked by spikes in violence, including the first suicide bombing in Israel since 2004 and an attack on a Jewish religious school by an Israeli Arab that killed eight.

Now, Mr. Alterman said, “for all the celebratory hoopla around Israel’s 60th birthday, there’s also a real sort of bitterness … that Israel’s 60th birthday is a story of survival, but not a story of triumph.”

“Israel has its 60th birthday with a sense that it may remain in conflict for its entire existence as a state,” he said.

There are some voices of optimism in Israel. The prominent newspaper Ha’aretz editorialized that “this is likely to be a year of opportunity,” citing growing support for a peace deal within the broader coalition of Arab countries in the Middle East.

But the odds look long for a last-minute breakthrough during Mr. Bush’s final eight months in office, despite repeated trips in recent months by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a trip by Vice President Dick Cheney in March, and these two trips by the president.

The Bush administration remains hamstrung in the Middle East because of resentment over the Iraq war, and many Arab nations see Iran as a competitor to the U.S. in the region.

On Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Jewish state “a stinking corpse” that is “heading for destruction.”

U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the upcoming trip “will demonstrate the president’s steadfast opposition to extremists and their state sponsors, Iran and Syria, who are expending enormous energy to thwart opportunities for security, freedom and peace in the region.”

But the White House’s inability to impose its will on the region has been illustrated afresh in the past few days, as Hezbollah guerrillas have engaged in street fighting in Lebanon with forces loyal to the U.S.-backed government. The Iranian-backed militants withdrew from Beirut’s streets yesterday after winning concessions from the government.

Mr. Bush’s diminished clout in his final year as president may also be amplified when he visits Saudi Arabia to meet King Abdullah.

The White House framed the visit as a chance to strengthen an already warm personal relationship between the two leaders, who also met during Mr. Bush’s January trip. But the meeting is not likely to produce much movement in gas prices, which is the main concern for most Americans.

Since Mr. Bush asked Abdullah on Jan. 15 to increase oil production, gas prices have gone up 59 cents nationally, according to AAA. The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.06 on Jan. 15, said AAA spokesman John Townsend, and late last week it was $3.65.

“It’s not clear what the incentive is to Saudi Arabia. We can’t deliver on peace … . We can’t deliver on the Iraq that Saudi Arabia wants. We are raising problems in terms of Iran,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East scholar at CSIS.

“And the reality is, the market isn’t being driven by us,” Mr. Cordesman said. “It’s being driven by China, by India, by rising Asian demand, which guarantees a market into the long-term.”

Mr. Bush’s trip will take him to Israel for three days, to Saudi Arabia for one day, and to Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, for two days. In his meetings with Adbullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Bush will press the Arab leaders to support the fledgling government in Iraq, and reassure them of his commitment to resolving issues with Iran diplomatically.

He will give two major speeches, one to the Israeli Knesset on Thursday and one to the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Egypt on Sunday.

Mr. Bush will meet with Mr. Abbas in Egypt, since he will not travel to the West Bank while he is in Israel, as he did in January.

Mr. Mubarak had tried to arrange a three-way meeting between Mr. Bush, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas, but the White House opposed the meeting, thinking it would create pressure for a premature and ineffective agreement.

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