Whoever watched Bush's address Monday saw a president significantly diminished in size. Five years and three weeks ago Bush delivered his first two-state speech. He spoke of a final-status agreement within three years. On Monday, he reiterated the key points of that address with one difference: This time he was careful not to specify a timeline.
Comparison of the speeches shows that peace in the Middle East is similar to the horizon: The closer we come to it the more it slips away.
Five years ago Bush was at his peak and, riding the wave of the 9/11 trauma, he embarked on a holy war against terror. The entire western world stood firmly behind him. America worshipped him. He sought to shift the world order, and it seemed as though the world was ready to make that shift. His immediate battle ground was Afghanistan. His next target was Iraq.
He was not too preoccupied with the Israelis and Palestinians. He perceived them as part of the Clinton heritage. He was reluctant to get involved in the mess.
A major part of that speech was phrased as an ultimatum to Arafat: Bush demanded that he fight terror, destroy the infrastructure, unify the security apparatuses and put them under outside inspection, cease incitement and corruption and implement reforms in his regime. In actual fact he called for the ousting of Arafat.
Ironically, many of these demands were fulfilled within five years: Arafat passed away. The two men currently heading the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and Salim Fayyad, oppose terror wholeheartedly and are refraining from terror and incitement, uniting the security apparatuses and putting them under external inspection, while opposing corruption. Bush has a Palestinian leadership he can support.
However, it's not a real leadership: It lost Gaza; it lost the support of the Palestinian majority, and it lost its fighting spirit. In his address Monday, Bush promised to pad Palestinian Authority leaders with cash. But the authority does not lack funds at present. Its lacks a public basis.
The US president is not really a president either. Iraq wore him out. The presidential elections will be held more than a year from now, but he is already depicted as a has-been, a lame duck.
The words that five years ago were perceived as a show of strength sounded as hollow as a church sermon on Monday: Full of good intentions, but lacking any significance. All Bush is promising to do is to convene a regional conference in the fall headed by Condoleezza Rice. These meetings are nothing more than castles in the air.
On ending his address Bush turned his back to the cameras and walked off into the horizon, to the window that overlooks the White House's southern lawn and across the lake – the Jefferson Memorial. It was a very theatrical gesture, very symbolic, as if he had said "enough, I am leaving. I am turning my back on the Middle East."
And indeed, Israel and the Palestinians have no one but themselves to depend on. Salvation will not be forthcoming from Bush. The question is whether they want it; whether they can achieve it.