National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Bush

WASHINGTON — For his last hurrah, President Bush is seeking to polish his sorely damaged foreign policy image as he contemplates his last year in office.

He has won an agreement from the Israelis and pro-western Palestinians — led by Mahmoud Abbas — to launch the first peace negotiations since the start of his administration, almost seven years ago.

The initiative was unveiled at the Annapolis Conference earlier this week. It's a little late in the game for the president — but better late than never.

Bush is pushing for a peace treaty by the end of next year, with the U.S. monitoring bi-weekly negotiating meetings between the two parties.

He also revived the notion of a road map designed to lead the two parties to a permanent peace, once the core issues have been tackled.

Among the long-standing issues are settlement of the final borders of the two states, the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the right of Palestinians to return to their homes.

Both sides have talked before and have reached pacts to advance peace, starting in 1948 with the creation of Israel. So this is the latest effort in a long series.

Bush's lack of historical understanding of Middle East problems is evident when he blames only Palestinians for extremism and violence. He should read up on the Stern Gang and the Irgun, para- military terrorist groups in the 1920s that later formed the Israeli army.

The heavily-armed Israelis have never hesitated to punish the Palestinian resistance, to kill or imprison them and occupy their land.

The Israelis have also more recently consolidated their stronghold on Palestinian land by building a 400-mile wall, causing tremendous hardship for the Palestinians.

While it was being built, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave the wall her blessing, viewing it as a security measure for the Israelis.

The Saudis have offered recognition of Israel if it returns to its 1967 borders. The offer is still on the table.

But overall, Bush's tarnished Middle East policy is personified by the disastrous preemptive U.S. war against Iraq and illegal torture of prisoners.

His future legacy may be identified with those two blots, barring a Middle East breakthrough.

It is no wonder that Bush has suddenly discovered the 60-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

True, Bush had previously called for a two-state solution, but he has given it only lip service up to now.

The record speaks for itself under this administration.

The U.S. gave all-out support to Israel in its war with Lebanon last year, sending thousands of cluster bombs to Israel in the last hours while a ceasefire was being negotiated. Israel dropped these treacherous bombs in southern Lebanon.

Last year, when the Hamas won an internationally monitored democratic election, the U.S. boycotted Gaza — the heart of Hamas' political base — and cut off financial aid. Israel also disrupted the flow of electricity and water to the region.

Although Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, it still controls the borders and movements of people and goods. Some independence!

In a Washington Post article, Maher Najjar — deputy director of Gaza's Coastal Municipalities Water Utility — wrote that Gaza's 1.5 million residents "have been living with collective punishment for a long time." This is something that post-World War II Israeli emigrants might recall.

Israel is also suffocating the economy in Gaza, where 70,000 are jobless. As a consequence, the people are suffering untold hardships.

Israel has sent weapons to Abbas' Fatah organization in an effort to bolster the main domestic opposition to Hamas.

In another gesture, Israel released a few hundred Palestinians prisoners. That leaves some 10,000 Palestinians remaining in Israeli prisons.

In his remarks at Annapolis, Bush broadened the stakes, claiming "a battle is underway for the future of the Middle East."

Bush threw down the gauntlet in that battle, starting with Iraq, but he won't be in power to end it.


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