Bush's Middle East "peace" charade

THE NEW York Times scolded George Bush last week for waiting seven years into his presidency to tackle the thorny problem of brokering peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict. But in the end, its editorial page struck a hopeful note.

"Mr. Bush said he would pressure the two sides when necessary, and he also promised to return to the region in May for Israel's 60th anniversary--and maybe more often if needed," read the Times editorial. "We hope that means that the president is finally and truly engaged."

But this image of Bush as a peacemaker has little to do with the real purpose of the trip--pledging U.S. support for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's policy of starving Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza into submission, propping up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a powerless mini-state on the West Bank, and rounding up support among Arab regimes for the U.S. campaign against Iran.

Bush reiterated his promise to provide Israel with $30 billion in new military and economic aid--a more than 25 percent increase--over the next 10 years.

This new support comes even though Israel has vowed to expand two West Bank settlements in direct defiance of the U.S.-backed "road map" for negotiations--an announcement made just hours after the conclusion of the Annapolis conference on Middle East peace that Bush convened in November.

Bush said that the Palestinians need more than a "Swiss cheese" state pocked with checkpoints, separation walls and illegal settlements. But he also said that only the outpost settlements that house less than 20 percent of the West Bank's settlers will have to be removed--which will leave Israel's apartheid setup intact.

Bush further asserted that Israel should remain "a Jewish state" and retreated from his earlier pledge of a timeline for establishing a Palestinian state by the end of 2008.

Then, in a closed-door meeting, Bush and Olmert compared notes on the continuing "threat" posed by Iran--despite the fact that the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a report prepared with input from all 16 U.S. spy agencies, concluded that Iran posed no imminent threat and had halted its nuclear program in 2003, just as Iranian officials said they had.

Spreading the gospel of the Iranian threat was a central aim of Bush's trip, according to Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies.

"This week's Middle East junket is partly about repeating the Annapolis mantra: despite the NIE, the Bush administration is still telling Arab regimes, stick with us, mobilize against Iran and we'll continue to prop you up with new military support," Bennis wrote. "And you can keep your angry populations in line by telling them that we're supporting a Palestinian state."

To that end, Bush made stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt--all of which are dictatorships or monarchies, have U.S. troops based on their territory and are close allies of Washington.

Far from making peace, Bush's trip was about keeping Palestinians under Israel's iron heel--and building support for the U.S. against Iran.