WASHINGTON, March 10 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush had promised he would help usher in peace in the Middle East through his efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute -- the core conflict in the Middle East -- before his term as president expires in January 2009.
But try as he may, the U.S. president is not getting much help from those he is trying to help. Rather, what the president is getting are counterproductive measures being undertaken by both sides in the longstanding dispute.
From the Palestinian side: The only asset contributing to the peace process is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is eager to pursue peace talks, cognizant that peace is the sole viable solution for the Palestinians. But Abbas is in a rather weak position. Although in title he is president of the Palestinian Authority, an area comprising the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in reality he rules over a divided house. Abbas controls only the West Bank while his political rivals in the Islamist movement, Hamas, rule over the Gaza Strip.
And it is from Gaza, surrounded by Israel's military, which has imposed a siege on the territory in efforts to contain the Islamist movement backed by Syria and Iran, that Hamas continues to launch rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli civilian population centers.
From the Israeli side: The Jewish state also finds itself in a somewhat similar predicament as its opponent, with a weak and unpopular prime minister at its head, as the country faces, according to its own intelligence services, a bleak picture of threats.
A senior government official in Jerusalem said the Cabinet was briefed during its weekly meeting by the country's intelligence chiefs on the findings of an annual report produced by Israel's intelligence agencies. The report warns of two immediate threats to the security of Israel: Iran's nuclear program and the continued firing of rockets at Israeli population centers by Hamas from Gaza.
"The main strategic threats are from Iran through its nuclear program and the pivotal role it is playing as a leader of the radical axis in the Arab and Muslim world," the official quoted the annual report as saying.
Israel sees a clear and present danger coming from the Islamic republic in view of the backing Iran is providing Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, as well as the strategic alliance Iran has developed with Syria, a country that remains at war with Israel. Israel also takes very seriously statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel to be wiped off the map.
The Israeli intelligence report states that while Gaza remains the most "active front," it warns against an all-out offensive against the Hamas-held territory for fear it would reignite the northern front, bringing Hezbollah into the battle.
"If Israel launches a broad operation in Gaza, that could lead to violence on other fronts, most notably from Hezbollah," the official is reported to have said.
Following the Gaza flare-up last week Abbas announced he was calling off talks with Israel. This prompted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to undertake an emergency trip to the region and pressure Israeli and Palestinian leaders into resuming their talks; both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to the U.S. secretary's request. However, in view of Sunday's decision by Olmert to approve the expansion of the Givat Zeev settlement in the occupied West Bank -- a move that has angered Palestinians -- the talks may be placed on hold once again.
Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the announcement, stating that "this is a provocative action by Israel that demonstrates its intention of further strengthening its illegal occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory."
Erekat called the timing of the decision "outrageous."
Coming on the eve of the trilateral meeting with the Americans, "this expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land by Israel constitutes yet another slap in the face of the peace process," said Erekat.
And from the U.S. side: Misconstrued U.S. foreign policy naively believed that the longstanding Middle East conflict could be solved in part by staging the Annapolis peace conference; the only real success of this conference was the ability of the Bush administration to bring together under the same roof representatives from Israel as well as from Syria and Saudi Arabia.
But the shortsightedness of U.S. Middle East foreign policy is that it failed to build on the momentum and bring Syria into the fold. The policy of the Bush administration of refusing to negotiate not only with Syria, but also with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, only hampers peace efforts.
Syria, much as Iran, continues to hold much influence over Hezbollah and Hamas. And much as the White House hates to admit it, the road to peace in the Middle East unavoidably passes through Damascus.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.