There can have been few more excruciating sights than President Bush parading the Israeli and Palestinian leaders before the cameras at the Annapolis summit on Tuesday, clasping their hands, squeezing their shoulders, pushing them together for a handshake and then leaving them to return to their seats like awkward boys summoned to the podium to be congratulated for their efforts at a school prizegiving.
But then that was only right for the occasion. Why were President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert there in the first place, if not because the White House had propelled them there with not an iota of prior agreement between them? And why did their joint statement of intent single out the end of 2008 as the time by which they hoped to reach a peace settlement? Because that is when President Bush will be leaving office.
This is not just the carping of a Bush critic. No one in their right mind would wish for anything other than peace to come to the Middle East. For the last four decades since the 1967 war, Palestinians and Arabs everywhere have begged and prayed for the West, and America in particular, to enter the fray and force the pace of peace. One could hardly complain that this is what Washington now appears to be doing, and under a president who has so long resisted it.
But this is not where the White House is heading. Forget all the rolling acres of analysis devoted to what separates the sides, the compromises that might be reached, the grave opinions as to how this is the "best chance" for peace in a decade and all the other guff that surrounds these talks, as it has surrounded all its many predecessors.
A lasting peace is not the primary point of this exercise, although the participants might be happy if it did achieve it. The Annapolis process is here for one purpose only, and that is for the final justification of Bush's presidency, his "legacy" after all the failures in Iraq and elsewhere. It will be regarded as a success if he gets to the elections next November with the parties still talking, or there having been a breakdown that can be clearly blamed on one side or another, presumably in this case the Palestinians.
Make no mistake about it. The process set in motion at Annapolis is a humiliation for the Palestinians, made all the worse because they have no choice but to go along with it, mouthing the platitudes of peaceful intent without the slightest confidence that they can achieve, or be given, anything in return for their promises of good behaviour.
And they are having to do it before an Arab world equally dragooned into acting as cheerleaders, unable to resist the pressure of Washington and fearful of looking bad if they didn't attend. No one believes in the efficacy of the project, certainly not the ordinary Palestinian or Israeli, but their leaders are there because they feel they cannot afford not to be.
If you doubt that interpretation, read the text of President Bush's speech in opening the conference. Well over half is given over to a catalogue of what the White House wants - no, demands - from the Palestinians and how it sees the talks not as a resolution of the Palestinian cause but an exemplar of Bush's long-vaunted vision of democracy for the whole Middle East. After the failure in Iraq, now it is Palestine, and behind it the Arab League, that is being asked to act as America's frontline force in the manichean struggle against fundamentalism in the Middle East.
"The Palestinians," said Bush in a revealing passage, "must show the world they understand that, while the borders of a Palestinian state are important, the nature of a Palestinian state is just as important. They must show that a Palestinian state will accept its responsibility, and have the capability to be a source of stability and peace - for its own citizens, for the people of Israel, and for the whole region."
Israel in contrast is asked to do little more than "remove unauthorised outposts, end settlement expansion and find other ways for the Palestinian Authority to exercise its responsibilities without compromising Israel's security". In other words, Israel is under no pressure to move on the bigger issues of right of return, the status of Jerusalem or the dismantling of authorised settlements on the West Bank.
Introducing a wonderful concert by the Joubran Trio at the Barbican recently, the trio's leader explained to the audience that the three brothers were Palestinian, before adding with quiet emphasis: "We do not seek peace. We seek justice." There was a moment of stunned silence before the largely Arab crowd erupted in acclamation.
You won't see the word justice in President Bush's speech, nor for that matter in President Abbas's. The reason is simple. The Palestinians won't get that, whatever the end of the process, from Annapolis, from Israel or from this administration.
© 2007 The Independent