COMMENTS: Lame Duck Mounts Peace Drive

For only the third time in the past two months, President George Bush shucked off his lame duck status to set the news agenda. Just once in October his actions were Story of the Day, when he vetoed an extension of children's healthcare funding; once again, earlier this month, he made headlines when he opened military airspace to facilitate Thanksgiving travel. Now the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis makes three, as Bush snared the lead spot on ABC's and CBS' newscasts. NBC chose to start with a brief live stand-up on the economy before its first taped package--also on the President's peace initiative.

CBS' Bill Plante reported that the President almost failed to get his headline. The conference still did not have an agenda even as he arrived in Maryland. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to put pressure on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader "to come up with something to avoid the appearance of failure." NBC's David Gregory called it the "Hurry-up Summit on the Chesapeake Bay--just three hours on the ground."

Involving himself in mideastern diplomacy is "a big change" for this President, ABC's Jonathan Karl observed, quoting Bush's assertion back in 2002 that if a summit fails "then the follow-up is worse than the status quo." Furthermore, in contrast to Bill Clinton's four trips to Jerusalem while in office, Bush has "not set foot in Israel since he became President." A two-state peace for Israel and Palestine, negotiated before the end of his term in January 2009, would likely involve "a lot more direct engagement by this President than he has so far been willing to give," CBS' Plante pointed out.

The encouraging sign, ABC's Karl argued, was that "never before have Israeli-Palestinian peace talks been supported by so many Arab states." NBC's Gregory pointed to Iran as the motivation for such a gathering. Teheran's involvement, with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, "has galvanized Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Syria." However, ABC's man in Jerusalem Simon McGregor-Wood saw Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as "both unpopular and weak" with the reputation of being "ill-equipped…to make the tough decisions that lie ahead." He cited pessimistic opinion polls on the likelihood of the Annapolis conference producing progress towards peace: 78% of Israelis predict failure; 67% of Palestinians.


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