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Bush constructing legacy as peacemaker

State of the Union, 28 Jan 2008For Israel and the Palestinians, 2008 is shaping up as yet another crucial year. US President George W. Bush, who history will remember for his propensity to make war, has made international headlines with his determination to make peace. In the tradition of administrations past, Bush is facing the reality of a tattered legacy, and the temptation to 'solve' the complex Palestinian-Israeli conflict has proven irresistible.

The international community cautiously welcomed Washington's re-engagement. In East Jerusalem, claims of an impending peace deal received a more tempered response. In the communities of the West Bank, the much-hyped visit of the leader of the free world made little difference to a daily life which continues to be defined by road-blocks, checkpoints and the separation wall. In the Gaza Strip, the peace process remains irrelevant.

When the Bush entourage arrived in Jerusalem, sealing off streets, taking over hotels and closing businesses, there was scant popular Palestinian support. Indeed, the situation was met with barely concealed humour. This disintegrated into disbelief and anger as the saturation media coverage of the revived peace-process gave way to images of despair from Gaza.

Israel stepped up its military strikes and placed Gaza's civilian population under siege. This policy aims to pressure the Hamas leadership into containing the militants who fire Kassam rockets at Israeli towns and territory. National security is a legitimate right of all states, yet the principle of proportionality is also enshrined in the international system. Israel's blockade constitutes collective punishment against a civilian population, an action which is illegal under international law.

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert's assertions that a humanitarian disaster would be avoided were belied by the sewerage which ran through the streets of Gaza and the images of desperate Palestinians storming the Egyptian border in search of food and fuel. By creating this situation, Israel has intensified its own security dilemmas and potentially those of its neighbouring state.

Yet since the takeover by Hamas, the political and physical isolation of Gaza by both Israel and the United States has become expected. Therefore, the real test for Bush's peace-making penchant is in the PA-led West Bank.

Despite recent events, the Annapolis process will continue, as the major players have much to gain from signatures on a peace accord.

The outgoing US President, who presided over a period of destruction in the Middle East, now seeks to claim the mantle of peace-maker.

In Tel Aviv, Olmert is facing an uncertain future and a likely commendation with the imminent publication of the Winograd report into the failed war of July 2006. He also stands to gain from a US-brokered agreement that is unlikely to compel him to alter long-standing Israeli policies such as settlement expansion in Palestinian territory.

The Palestinian Authority, weakened by the split with Hamas and losing credibility in the face of Israel's unrelenting pressure against Gaza, also needs to score points. Its legitimacy rests in part on the stalled Oslo process of the 1990s and, as was demonstrated in the electoral success of Hamas in 2006, the Palestinian people are weary of its inability to deliver. Indeed, a failure to broker a deal now could increase the possibility of the PA's total disintegration.

The PA is aware that each month that passes without some form of agreement places the Palestinians in a weaker position. Yet in the current tense climate, the signing of a 'solution' which does not bring the hoped-for peace could be even more disastrous.

As the Annapolis process unfolds, the international community needs to be vigilant in its advocacy for the rights of the civilians caught up in this conflict. A future Palestinian state needs to be a viable physical and political entity and needs to be established in accordance with the long history of UN resolutions affirming the rights of the Palestinians to sovereign land, human dignity and the chance at economic prosperity.

Israel has long claimed it is a partner for peace and that the separation wall is a reversible security measure. If Israel is serious about peace it needs to cease policies of collective punishment. It also needs to open negotiations on the wall or, at the absolute minimum, the sections which deviate from the green line of the pre-1967 border.

If the Palestinians want peace they need to unify their leadership and contain militant actions which merely provide Israel with an excuse to tighten its strangle-hold.

If the Bush Administration wants peace, it should break a long-standing US tradition and exert the political pressure required to attain a viable agreement.

A peace accord signed by political leaders will only hold if the prospects of the people in the West Bank, Israel and Gaza are improved. The danger is that this reality will be forgotten as embattled and weakened leaders on all sides negotiate for legacy, legitimacy and position.

Kylie BaxterDr Kylie Baxter works in the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, Asia Institute, the University of Melbourne. She is co-author of the forthcoming US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: the rise of anti-Americanism and is currently in Beirut researching the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.



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