Bush’s Mid-East legacy
US President George Bush’s war to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq is a graphic example of the law of unintended consequences.
Its outcome, quite apart from the chaos in Iraq itself, has been a fundamental shift in the geo-strategic balance in the Middle East.
Iran is resurgent. Iran’s allies like Hezbollah and Hamas are the main beneficiaries of their patron’s ascent. And pro-western Sunni Arab regimes are worried.
That at least is the conventional wisdom.
So with the end now in sight for the Bush administration, it seemed like a useful exercise to see how leading Israeli experts view Mr Bush’s legacy in the region.
Perhaps surprisingly, they seemed far less pessimistic than many of their European and American counterparts.
Ehud Yaari, one of Israel’s most respected regional commentators, sees a significant underlying shift for the better.
"I think what we have now in the Middle East is a tectonic movement of the basic plates of the region, moving quietly towards each other," he said.
And running through a catalogue of current problems, Mr Yaari chose to accentuate the positive.
"I see the possibility of some sort of a bargain – probably a partial bargain – between the major powers and Iran. We have already seen a deal over Lebanon between the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis and the West.
"I believe that we are going to see in the next few months a reconciliation of sorts between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
"I think that the trend in the region is towards some sort of new arrangements between the adversaries, not towards a confrontation," he concluded.
This positive view was endorsed by Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry under the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"Leaving Iran aside, the Middle East today is much more stable than it was when Mr Bush came into power," he said.
Like many Israelis, he sees the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime as being of fundamental importance.
"Saddam Hussein’s regime went to war with practically all its neighbours: with Kuwait; with Iran; it sent missiles against Saudi Arabia; and against Israel – this danger does not exist any more.
"I know this sounds paradoxical, because everyone is concerned about the Iraqi situation, but this, today, is an internal situation.
"Yes, it is a humanitarian disaster; it’s a political disaster; but in terms of its strategic threat to the Middle East, it is much less today than it was before," Mr Avineri said.
But what of Iran and its nuclear programme?
Even here, Mr Yaari believes there are some grounds for optimism.
"I think the possibility of a bargain, a freeze-for-a-freeze deal with the Iranians, [where Iran halts its uranium enrichment programme and UN economic sanctions are suspended] is not against the interests of Israel and I believe that in this respect the Israelis will be extremely co-operative, even if some of the statements that some of our politicians will make in public will carry a different message," Mr Yaari said.
In Lebanon too, Mr Yaari thinks that there are some grounds for optimism.
He believes, for example, that Hezbollah’s behaviour may be moderated by its stronger role in government: "We may have a situation in Lebanon in which Hezbollah is more restricted and restrained because they have a formula which is so comfortable for them."
On the Palestinian front, it is hard to see much progress during the Bush years.
The Palestinian leadership is split between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And the Bush administration only turned to the Palestinian track relatively late in its term.
Mr Yaari believes, in due course, there will be a reconciliation of sorts between the two wings of the Palestinian movement.
"This will amount to Hamas effectively relinquishing its control over the government in the Gaza Strip; that’s not a bad development from an Israeli point of view."
However he stressed that while ceding the governing role, "Hamas will retain its supremacy in the Gaza Strip".
Prof Avineri accepts Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians have not been all they might be.
But he insists that they themselves cannot be absolved from part of the blame for their own misfortunes.
"One of the major Palestinian failures, beyond American policies and Israeli policies which can always be criticised, is the fact that they have not been able – after having an election – to set up a government based upon some sort of representative consensus."
He remains "very pessimistic about the two wings of the Palestinian nation creating a consensual, meaningful body politic which is crucial for successful negotiation with Israel".
Art of the possible
So what then of the next US administration? Which pieces of the Middle East puzzle should it pick up and with what purpose?
"Learn from the mistakes of previous presidents," Prof Avineri urges.
"All American presidents since the 1960s have tried to reach peace in the Middle East and some of them came up with very dramatic programmes or meetings or conferences – all of them have failed unless there has been a local will and capability."
The implication clearly is that this local will and capability is presently absent.
Mr Yaari is more explicit: "Because a final-status peace treaty between Israeli and the Palestinians is impossible – they cannot agree on the terms – one has to seek a different formula, probably something less than peace, something that I would call an armistice regime. For this I believe we will have many of the players subscribing."
Prof Avineri too stresses that the next US president must practice the art of the possible.
Apologising for the political science jargon, he says the Americans must move from "the illusion of conflict resolution to a realistic assessment of the possibilities of conflict management; avoiding violence, mitigating tensions; and creating confidence-building steps on both sides".
"Nobody should enter the Oval Office thinking that between now and Christmas, or between now and Easter, you can solve something that has been bedevilling this area for almost 100 years," he adds.
In the final analysis I am not sure if this is pessimistic or optimistic.
Israeli conservatives want to delay any final agreement with the Palestinians, to hold onto the West Bank and the settlement infrastructure there.
But here are two professional analysts arguing the conditions are just not right for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The danger though, as Ehud Yaari put it to me, is that if some progress cannot be made on the Israel-Palestinian track, then the whole idea of a two-state solution may become more elusive.