Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday highlighted Iran's alleged "hatred for America" ahead of a trip to the Middle East beginning March 16. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the administration to shape events in the region.
Yet rather than herald a change in strategy, Cheney will endeavour to shore up a series of policies -- not least in the Arab-Israeli conflict -- that are increasingly seen internationally as ineffective or counterproductive.
President George Bush's policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict has demonstrated considerable resolve, but has been short on results. November's Annapolis meeting, Bush's proclaimed ambition to achieve a peace agreement before leaving office, and a Middle East regional tour that started in Jerusalem all suggested that the administration was confident in its analysis of Middle East politics and its approach to moving the process forward. However, recent events indicate that such self-assurance was misplaced.
Policy debacle. January's debacle in Gaza, in which Hamas broke through the border with Egypt and forcibly ended the state of siege, was a clear sign that the policy status quo is not sustainable. Subsequent Palestinian rocket attacks, and strong Israeli retaliation, served to highlight how each side could hurt the other, but neither side could make the other give in. Israel finds itself with many military options but few military solutions -- and its 2006 Lebanon experience makes it wary of embarking on an open-ended assault on Gaza. The current defence minister (and former and perhaps future prime minister), Ehud Barak, is keen to show his toughness, but his options are meagre.
Egyptian mediation. The paucity of viable options on all sides has created a role for Egyptian mediation. The likely understanding, sought by Israel and Hamas alike, skirts each side's determination not to recognise the other. However, it undermines the Bush administration's resolve to teach Hamas a lesson and give it no quarter until it recognises Israel, ends violence and accepts all previous international agreements on Arab-Israeli issues:
• The Bush administration finds its principle of isolating Hamas undermined by its need somehow to preserve the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), whose capacity and legitimacy are being undercut by warfare in Gaza.
• While PNA President Mahmoud Abbas and interim Prime Minister Salam Fayyad seek Hamas's demise, Israeli actions in Gaza serve to stimulate Palestinian resolve and solidarity -- and enhance Hamas's popular prestige. • Meanwhile, perceived US passivity in the face of Israeli reprisals undercuts the Arab and other international support that had been the key accomplishments of the Annapolis meeting.
Assistant Secretary of State David Welch's visit to Cairo was intended to ensure that US interests are maintained, but it is Israeli eagerness to stabilise the situation, rather than a putative outbreak of White House pragmatism towards Hamas, that is driving the Egyptian mediation process.
Cheney's role. Vice President Dick Cheney's regional tour next week seems intended to arrest an alarming slide in diplomatic and strategic conditions, rather than move the process forward:
• Likely Israeli 'concession'. The Israeli announcement that it is commencing building activities in East Jerusalem seems targeted at shoring up the Right flank of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima-led coalition; recent State Department statements about such activities being "not helpful" are a placeholder, and Olmert will almost certainly offer to halt such construction as a gesture of goodwill during the vice-president's visit.
• Damage control. Cheney's hawkish bona fides are indisputable, and Olmert's 'concession' will earn political points for preserving the strong US relationship, rather than make him seem weak for giving the Palestinians something for nothing. That Cheney's trip follows so closely on the heels of an ineffectual visit to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggests an urgent effort at damage control.
No softening on Hamas. Cheney's visit certainly does not herald a softening within the Bush administration on Hamas. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any such shift while Bush remains in office. Instead, the administration has decided not to let its own principles stand in the way of Israeli pragmatism.