GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — One recent Friday morning, Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian human-rights activist, offered this assessment of what the future holds for the Gaza Strip now that the Islamist group Hamas has taken control:
"For two years, Gaza will suffer even more," said Sarraj, a British-trained psychiatrist who founded Gaza's mental-health system. Then, he said, President Bush and his advisers will be gone. A new U.S. administration will talk to Hamas, and so will the Israelis.
"They'll have to," he said, "because they'll have seen that Hamas can deliver."
That calculus — that the end of the Bush administration is approaching and things will be different afterward — now underpins political thought throughout much of the Middle East.
With 17 months to go in Bush's second term, political leaders in the region are anticipating his departure and preparing for change.
It's no surprise that Bush is unpopular in much of the world.
Even in the United States, his approval ratings have been low all year.
A series of interviews in the Middle East, however, found a startling level of disappointment, disdain and distrust, even among people who, like Sarraj, profess to be friends of the United States or have strong ties to America.
In Cairo, Baghdad, Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip, no one rose to the Bush administration's defense, not even those who think that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would lead to even worse sectarian bloodletting.
While no single set of interviews can capture the full range of Middle East views, the widespread awareness that Bush will be gone soon augurs poorly for any new administration initiatives.
That may help explain the cool reception that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates received as they crisscrossed the region recently. The results were so disappointing that a lukewarm suggestion from Saudi Arabia that it might consider attending a U.S.-sponsored Middle East meeting was hailed as a breakthrough.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit pointedly mentioned the administration's end as he offered to support American endeavors in Iraq "regarding the upcoming period, which is the next 17 months, the life of the administration."
"No one likes American policy," said the senior diplomat of a Cairo-based Arab organization. The diplomat, who spoke only on condition of anonymity so that he could be frank, used the term "cut and run" to describe efforts in Congress to legislate a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
He ticked off the errors he sees in U.S. policy: "Democracy is not only a glass box and a queue," he said, describing Iraq's elections. "You cannot have ministries, each with its own militia," he said, referring to the distribution of Iraq's government by sect. "You cannot have a purge of Baath party members that turns into a general punishment," he said of the initial American efforts to ban members of Saddam Hussein's political party from government jobs.
A senior Israeli official sat silently for several seconds after he was asked which negotiating approach was most likely to lead to progress in peace talks with Israel's Arab neighbors. Then he laughed and, in flawless English, suggested to a colleague that he must not have understood the question. "I don't see any promising pathway," he said. "There is a huge gap between the rhetoric and what people believe."
The Israeli government understands that to have peace with Syria "means giving back the Golan Heights," the strategic high ground that Israel seized in 1967, and "we're willing to discuss it," he said. But with Bush insisting "from the Oval Office" that the U.S. won't talk to Syria, nothing can be expected. "The Syrians really want to talk to the United States," the official said. Even among government officials in Iraq there's little embrace of Bush policy, and surprising expressions of distrust.
Sheik Hamom Hammoudi, a leading figure in Iraq's largest Shiite Muslim political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, accused the Americans of protecting the Sunni Muslim insurgents who drive Shiite residents from their homes. "Even now, the Shiites are being displaced under the protection of American forces," Hammoudi said.
That's at odds with the American view that Shiite militias continue to force Sunni residents from Baghdad neighborhoods despite the presence of more U.S. troops under Bush's security buildup.
Hammoudi, who heads Iraq's constitutional-reform committee and meets regularly with top U.S. officials, including Iraq military commander Army Gen. David Petraeus and, recently, Vice President Dick Cheney, was particularly dismayed that the United States is cooperating with Sunni insurgent groups in a campaign to destroy the group al Qaida in Iraq.
"There is no doubt that al Qaida is everyone's enemy, but arming these groups and giving them free use of the weapons is a danger," said Hammoudi, who wore clerical dress — a long black robe and gray turban. He holds a master's degree in psychology from Baghdad University and has brothers who've lived in Ohio and Indiana for 40 years.
"They are called freedom fighters," Hammoudi said of the new, U.S.-friendly insurgents. "And there are the Americans, in the background."
Nowhere were disappointment and dismay more apparent than in Gaza, where people are enjoying their first taste of stability after months of violence between Hamas and Fatah, the faction that's affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and backed by the United States and Israel.
Nearly anyone you ask will tell you that things are better since Hamas took control in June. People can walk the streets without fear that a sudden burst of gunfire will catch them in a crossfire. While the economy continues to be squeezed, basic products are available. In daylight hours, stores are open, watermelon and tomatoes are piled high at street stalls and children play outside. At night, cars jam the streets and patrons crowd restaurants.
Everyone, however, is looking over his shoulder. Hamas has long endorsed a conservative view of Islam, and hotel clerks, taxi drivers and people such as Sarraj wonder when a crackdown might begin.
"My wife is very concerned," said Sarraj, who once escaped a Yasser Arafat-imposed jail sentence through the intervention of Jimmy Carter. His wife is British, and his children live in London. He also carries a British passport.
"People wonder why I still live here," he said. "I say, 'Every day in Gaza is exciting.' "
Sarraj worries that Abbas' government in Ramallah in the West Bank is trying to hasten a Hamas crackdown, a fear that others share. They cite directives from Ramallah preventing Palestinian Authority judges from enforcing their decisions and ordering the Palestinian police force to stay home.
Abbas' failure to protest Israel's arrests of dozens of Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament and American support for the action are particularly galling to Sarraj.
"How can the Americans accept this, parliamentarians in jail?" he asked.
Recently, Sarraj underwent treatment for leukemia. His $2 million health insurance policy would have paid for care in Europe or the United States, but he chose to be treated in Israel, in part because he knows so many Israeli doctors, in part because he trusts the Israeli health system.
Then he smiled, seeing another chance to slam Bush.
"They treated me with stem cells," he said, "which that fundamentalist Bush won't agree to."