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May 27, 2003

Chafets recommends not to go

President Bush is said to be pondering a peacemaking trip to the Middle East. I have two words of advice: Don't go.

Let's start with the most pressing reason: If Bush gets anywhere near the Middle East right now, there's an excellent chance that someone will kill him.

Saddam Hussein is still on the loose, armed and dangerous. The deposed Iraqi dictator tried to whack Bush's father, and he's got an even better reason to go after the son. Saddam also has several billion dollars in cash. In the Middle East, you can hire an assassin for $50. Saddam can send an army.

Unless somebody beats him to it. Osama Bin Laden's guys would love to kill Bush. So would Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Yasser Arafat's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Not to mention Iran's Hezbollah proxies or the Egyptian Muslim underground that murdered their nation's President Anwar Sadat.

Bush is a macho guy. Nobody doubts his personal courage. But this isn't throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. Right now, the Middle East is full of men and women who would be honored to martyr themselves in the blood of the Satan from Crawford, Tex.

The trip might be worth the risk if there were any chance that personal diplomacy could accomplish something. But it can't. A trip to the Middle East right now is a recipe for failure. To see that, all Bush needs to do is take a look at the crowd cheering him on. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the only one who could plausibly be considered a friend. All the others - French President Jacques Chirac, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the heads of the Arab League and aspiring Democratic candidates - want to see Bush fall flat on his face.

He will, too. Given the state of enmity between Israel and the Arabs, the nature of the international road map for peace and Bush's own inclinations, failure is inevitable. And it would be Bush's fault.

Let me put this bluntly: In the Arab-Israeli dispute, the international community is on the Arab side. The road map it has concocted - and expects Bush to force on Israel - is nothing more than a demand for a Palestinian state. Period. If that state is governed by reasonable leaders who accept Israel's right to exist, fine. If not, tough.

Bush ostensibly favors the road map, too. But not at any price. His reservations stem from the fact that, unlike the world community, Bush is deeply pro-Israel. Why? Good question. It can't be his background. His father was notably cold to Jerusalem. Politics? Bush got a small fraction of the Jewish vote in 2000, and even Republican optimists don't think he'll win a majority in 2004. A Jewish cabal in the White House? Despite fevered attempts to paint Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and various second-tier functionaries as members of a diabolical cell of the Elders of Zion, this administration is notable for the paucity of Jews at its most senior levels.

Even Bush's born-again Christianity doesn't explain things. After all, Jimmy Carter was born again, too, and there has never been an American President so instinctively hostile to the Jewish state.

Actually, the root of Bush's affinity for Israel isn't mysterious. He's a Texan. When he looks at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he sees his hero, Sam Houston; when he looks at Yasser Arafat, he sees Pancho Villa.

Nor is this simply a matter of sentiment. In a region of anti-American countries, Israel is uniquely pro-American. And with the U.S. engaged in a for-us-or-against-us war in the Middle East, that's not a small thing.

Some American foreign policy sophisticates in the State Department, the oil business and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party disagree. They regard American support for Israel as a valid Arab grievance. They want Bush to appease it by ramming the road map down Israel's throat, not so much for the sake of the Palestinians, but to demonstrate evenhandedness to the Arab world.

But Bush won't do this. He won't play make-believe with his demand that Arafat relinquish power. He won't insist that Israel withdraw its troops from the West Bank and Gaza before the Palestinian Authority makes a good-faith effort to stop terrorism. And he won't pressure Sharon into agreeing to a Palestinian state as long as the Palestinians are demanding the right of return for refugees, the practical consequence of which would be the end of Israel's Jewish majority.

Bush won't do these things because if he were in Sharon's place, he wouldn't agree to them. The most Bush will ask for is a freeze on settlements and a partial withdrawal. Sharon won't turn down these requests and blow up the talks. He won't have to. The Palestinians will beat him to it.

Even if Bush survives his road trip to the Middle East, he is doomed to fail - which is what the "Go, George, go" crowd really wants. The Arab League dictators will once more be able to consolidate power by exploiting indignation at America's latest treachery. France and Russia will use it as an opportunity to increase their influence in the Islamic world at the expense of the U.S. Meanwhile, at home, Bush's Democratic rivals can blame him for a diplomatic fiasco.

Under the circumstances, it's hard to think of a worse presidential trip to make. If I were Bush, I'd fire the travel agent who tried to talk me into it.