A few hours after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, I happened to see an interview with a group of Pakistani university students who were part of a stunned mass of grieving people on the streets of Karachi. They all looked and sounded secular, educated and western. The reporter asked them about Bhutto's death, prospects for democracy in Pakistan, and what they thought about the United States.
They had varying opinions, arguing among themselves and cutting each other off until one young woman brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Of course," she said, "we all feel such rage against the United States because of what is going on in Gaza. This is something all Pakistanis feel." The others nodded vigorously in agreement.
There it was. Take pretty much any group of Muslims -- Arabs, Iranians, South or East Asians, whatever -- and the one subject on which there is near universal agreement is the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
In the United States, little attention is paid to news footage of Palestinian funerals in Gaza or settler brutality in Hebron. But in the Muslim world, these are huge stories, in part because it is the only issue about which there is a clear consensus. It's no different than the Israeli media covering outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence somewhere in the Diaspora -- equal parts empathy, solidarity, and fury at the perpetrators and their enablers.
From Egypt and Jordan all the way to Indonesia and Malaysia, American interests are injured by the perception that the United States is responsible for Palestinian suffering. Not long ago viewed as aspiring honest brokers, we are now seen as the one nation in the world that could help end the occupation of the West Bank and the blockading of Gaza, and isn't even trying.
That is probably the main reason President Bush is traveling to Israel and the West Bank next week. He understands that his direct, personal, and very visible intervention is critical if America is to have any hope of convincing 1.6 billion Muslims that we are at least trying to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
He needs to demonstrate that despite the rhetoric in some circles here about Islamo-fascism, we are not engaged in a civilization war against Muslims (Norman Podhoretz and Daniel Pipes, notwithstanding).
Not surprisingly, there is considerable skepticism that America intends to do anything to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not only in the Arab and Muslim world.
During the past seven years, the Bush administration has repeatedly promised that it was going to push hard for negotiations. And every time, after a well-publicized announcement, the initiative was left to wither on the vine -- with the encouragement of powerful elements of the pro-Israel lobby who pressed their minions on Capitol Hill to ensure that peace was not given a chance.
Take the example of the Colin Powell mission of 2002 It was typical of the half-dozen or so administration forays into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy (as chronicled by Yediot Achronot columnist Nahum Barnea and Brookings scholar, Ariel Kastner, in their Saban Center monograph, Backchannel: Bush, Sharon and the Uses of Unilateralism published in December 2006).
On April 4, 2002, with the second intifada raging, President Bush delivered a speech endorsing the two-state solution and dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to get the violence halted and negotiations started. Powell made surprising headway and was about to announce an Israeli and Palestinian agreement on an enforcement mechanism when neoconservatives inside the administration convinced Vice President Cheney to shut him down.
Powell was told to abandon mediation and to make sure that the full burden of accountability was placed on the Palestinians with no demands made of the Israelis.
That ended the Powell mission. He came home empty-handed.
A year later, the administration put forth the Roadmap, largely at the insistence of then British Prime Minister Tony Blair who believed that the US and Britain could not succeed in Iraq so long as Arabs saw America as sustaining the occupation. The President attended a summit in Jordan -- along with Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas -- at which he declared he would push hard for a deal and would personally "ride herd" on the process.
Again, neocons at the Pentagon and the White House mobilized to prevent movement by telling Jerusalem that Bush had no intention of holding anyone's feet to the fire. They assured the Sharon government that it was safe to re-interpret the Roadmap in a way that guaranteed its failure (which it did by insisting, with Bush administration approval, that Israeli commitments under the Roadmap need only be implemented after the Palestinians implemented all of theirs).
The pattern repeated itself several more times before 2007 and it was always the same. An initiative would be announced, only to be derailed by neoconservatives here who worked with their counterparts in Israel to preserve the status quo. Their task was made only easier by the periodic outbreaks of terrorism, which they used as a pretext for doing nothing.
So why should it be any different now?
One reason is that most, although not all, of the neocons have left the administration (most notably the group around former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld). Once it became clear that the Iraq war, which they had championed, had become America's costliest foreign policy failure, some of its leading proponents left office. They were the same officials who were the most active opponents of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and of compromise by Israel in general.
Now most of them are gone.
The surviving neocons are nowhere near as strong as they once were, not after a succession of deadly failures. They are certainly not strong enough to thwart a president who is determined to pull off an Israeli-Palestinian agreement during his last year in office, especially if that president has an ally in the Israeli Prime Minister.
This is new. During most of the Sharon years, US officials who were determined to preserve the status quo had a strong ally in the Prime Minister of Israel. That is no longer the case. In fact, it is no secret that the neocons are none too fond of Olmert, who they see as hopelessly dovish. Bush, on the other hand, likes and trusts him.
Gone are the days when aides to the President of the United States would call aides to the Israeli Prime Minister to strategize on how best to put the breaks on US peacemaking.
In short, the terrain has changed dramatically. Sharon and Arafat are out while Abbas and Olmert are in. Donald Rumsfeld, who shared the views of his neoconservative assistants, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, was fired and replaced by Robert Gates who most decidedly does not. Even Tom Delay, who always prided himself at being more hard-line than the Israeli right, was forced to leave Congress while Speaker Nancy Pelosi believes that supporting Israel requires backing peace efforts not thwarting them.
And then there is George W. Bush.
Frankly speaking, there is no reason he has to go to Israel and Palestine. It is a long and arduous trip, with no guarantee of success, and he has resisted going for seven years. The only reason he is going now is because he is determined to make Israel-Palestinian peace his positive legacy.
Can he do it?
Indeed, he can. All it takes is the will. I doubt Bush knows much about Theodor Herzl. But there is one thing I hope someone tells him. It was Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who said, "If you will it, it is no dream."
If that was true for a 19th century Hungarian Jew whose dream was to re-construct an independent Jewish state lost 1900 years earlier, it is certainly true for an American President in 2008. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians, both dependent on America, can say "no" to a determined American president. All it takes is presidential will.
We'll see soon if Bush has it.
MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.