Politics & Government

Bush sets off for Middle East, unable to quell its troubles

MCT

JERUSALEM — President Bush sets off this week to celebrate Israel's 60th birthday, but the festivities are likely to be muted by the dimming prospects for brokering regional peace deals during the Republican administration's waning months in power.

On the eve of Bush's trip, Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters humbled the pro-Western government in Lebanon by seizing large parts of Beirut and unleashing the deadliest clashes since the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

An unfolding political corruption scandal has undermined Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's already questionable ability to secure a peace deal with the Palestinians.

And after a Palestinian rocket killed an elderly Israeli civilian Monday, Israeli leaders warned that a deadly showdown with the militant Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip may be on the horizon.

Combined with the Bush's diminishing influence over world events, the fissures running through the Middle East make any last-minute administration achievements unlikely, said Aaron David Miller, the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

"This is not an American story right now," said Miller, who served as a Middle East negotiator for Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. "We are not feared in this region. We are not liked in this region. And we are not respected in this region, so there's not much leverage that we have."

Bush's schedule will take him through the Middle East briar patch that's ensnared his administration since Sept. 11, 2001.

He'll celebrate Israel's independence with Olmert and meet with moderate Palestinian leaders, whose ability to sign a peace deal with the Israelis is in doubt because Hamas controls the Gaza Strip.

The president will visit Saudi leaders who repeatedly have rebuffed the administration's appeals to boost oil production in order to cut gas prices.

Bush also will meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who's battling emboldened Taliban forces, and will confer with Iraqi leaders central to the administration's final push for stability there.

A planned meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora may be scratched, however. Saniora is trying to contain factional fighting led by Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah fighters, who are threatening his tenuous hold on power.

"Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran have more influence right now than all of the would-be peacemakers," said Miller.

Initial hopes of having Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sign a statement of progress during the president's visit were shelved when it became clear that the talks hadn't produced enough progress.

Bush has decided to steer clear of any three-way meeting.

"It just doesn't feel right as the best way to advance the negotiations," Bush National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters in Washington last week.

Advancing negotiations is going to be even more difficult now that Olmert is facing a corruption investigation that could force him from office.

Olmert has vowed to resign if he's indicted, and allegations that he accepted bribes from an American businessman have undercut his authority.

The investigation could serve as an impetus for Olmert to try and cut a deal with the Palestinians. But the Israeli prime minister probably would be unable to persuade his coalition to accept an agreement, said Efraim Inbar, the director of Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

"Whatever Olmert agrees to he has to deliver," said Inbar. "And if he goes too far, his government will not be able to survive."

As talks with Abbas founder, Israel appears to be edging closer to a more decisive strike on Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli newspapers have reported that military leaders are waiting until after Bush's visit and the country's birthday celebrations to launch a broader attack on Palestinian militants, who are using Gaza as a base to fire crude rockets and mortars at Israeli towns and cities.

The latest rocket salvo killed a 70-year-old Israeli woman on Monday, the second time in four days that a civilian has been killed by an aerial attack from Gaza.

"The current situation is not sustainable," said Olmert spokesman Mark Regev. "Either there will be an end to this rocket fire into Israel peacefully or the Israeli army will have to act."

Attempts by Egypt to broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel so far have produced no breakthroughs.

On Monday, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met in Israel with Olmert and other leaders to present the latest proposal. But Olmert said that there could be no agreement without progress toward freeing Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier who was captured in 2006 by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip.

While Israel wrestles with the attacks from Gaza, Lebanon's government has first confronted Hezbollah and then capitulated. Now Middle East leaders are working to prevent the battles from sliding into a long-feared resumption of the country's civil war.

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