She's called "the secret weapon" of George W. Bush, and compared to Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams. Arnold Beichman of the Hoover Institution says she ought to run for president: "In a presidential contest between Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, there is no question whom majority public opinion would favor."
Hyperbole aside, Laura Bush has become a first-class diplomat in the Middle East. She has apparently taken the advice she offered to her husband at the recent White House Correspondents Association dinner: "George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later."
On a five-day trip to the Middle East, she carried personal messages of hope to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and ran into a nest of barely peaceful demonstrators in Jerusalem. Who could not be touched as she tucked a handwritten note into the Western Wall, the most sacred shrine of Judaism, where angry demonstrators noisily demanded that the United States release Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew imprisoned here for spying for Israel? She braved stronger protests at the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe Mohammed mounted his horse for a gallop to paradise. As she was taking off her shoes and covering her head with a shawl to prepare to enter the mosque, a man yelled: "You don't belong here." She went inside, anyway.
In Jericho, where Joshua knocked down the walls with a blast from his trumpet, the city has been turned over to the Palestinians. The first lady met with Palestinian women to deliver a message of hope for peace between Israel and Palestine. "It will take a lot of baby steps, and I'm sure it will be a few steps backward on the way," she said. Alas, no walls came tumbling down this time.
While Laura Bush was delivering messages of good will, representatives of both Israel and Palestine arrived in the United States to deliver their own messages, and with mixed effect. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went to New York to defend his decision to remove Israeli settlers from Gaza without guarantees from Palestinians (guarantees which aren't usually worth much, anyway). Polls show a firm majority of Israelis on his side. The pullout is perceived as necessary to maintain Israel's security and to start the zillionth chapter of the peace process, this time with a new leadership of the Palestinian Authority. But the issue remains exceedingly contentious.
In a speech at Baruch College in New York City, a friendly audience was infiltrated by protesters who tried to disrupt and dismay. Outside the auditorium, Orthodox Jews accused him of selling out.
President Bush supports the Gaza pullout, but one of his Israeli heroes does not. The president told me in an interview earlier this year that Natan Sharansky's book, "The Case for Democracy," is essential reading for understanding why he fights tyranny the way he does. But the same Natan Sharansky resigned from the Sharon cabinet to protest the withdrawal.
Over lunch in Washington the other day, hosted by the Israel Project, Mr. Sharansky told me why: "I want to give away territories when there's no fear that Jews who wish to stay can stay without fear of being killed." He observed that the houses of the departing settlers will be torn down before the Palestinian Authority moves in to keep them from being occupied by terrorists who would use them to store arms. That's hardly a promising process for peace.
But the Israel Project offers another side to the issue, demonstrating that Israel is willing "to make painful sacrifices for peace." Not only are 8,000 Israelis, including 4,000 children, leaving their homes to achieve "lasting peace," but the graves of the very victims of the terrorists will be moved to give the land to friends of the killers.
Laura Bush showed her mettle in the Middle East, and this week the president must show his. When he meets today (May 26) with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, he must get binding confirmation that Abbas will do what Yasser Arafat said he would do but never did - destroy the terrorist networks, advance democratic reforms and put an end to the hate speech spewing every day from PA Television, as documented over and over by the Middle East Media Research Institute (www.memri.org).
"The chance that we have right now to have peace, to have a Palestinian state living by a secure and safe Israel, both living in democracy, is as close as we've come in a really long time," Laura Bush told the Palestinian women. "I want to encourage the people I met with . that the United States will do what they can in this process."
The first lady offered the carrot. It's up to the president to apply the stick.