Gaza and Bush from up a ladder

Even in the midst of DIY projects somewhere out beyond Gisborne, it was impossible to avoid the horror of Gaza and the sheer stupidity on display at George Bush's final press conference

I've spent the past couple of week up a ladder shooting a seemingly endless number of tubes of gap-filler into holes in a ceiling. The ceiling in question was a good 14 feet high, and so at the top of that ladder I was blissfully removed from any computer, and indeed most media. Nevertheless, a couple of news stories reached me even up on the seventh rung, breaking into my DIY reverie.

The tragedy of Gaza could hardly be avoided. Although to call it a tragedy suggests it is some random act of misery, when it is really yet another round of cynical political manoeuvring in a region that has seen all too much of that for far too long.

The fact is that this was so unnecessary. The six month truce that Hamas and the Israelis had signed last June could have been extended, even improved. Israel's refusal to allow aid into Gaza and Hamas's return to rocket attacks in December were both provocative, but they meant both sides had chips to negotiate with.

Israel's choice to escalate rather than negotiate deserves all the condemnation we can level at it. There were more peaceful alternatives, but Israel saw the opportunity to strengthen its position – over Christmas and in the dying days of a weak US presidency – and moved. It was a murderous decision; and that should be conceded whether you instinctively sympathise with Israel or not. Any observer of the Middle East can feel for Israel's long-term suffering and empathise with its need for security and its right of self-preservation, but still call it wicked when its actions warrant it, as now.

As they saying goes, all politics is local. Hamas has been losing support since it won power in Gaza in 2005 and looked set to struggle in elections later this year. It can now draw on martyrdom and nationalist anger to win votes. In a similar vein, the Kadima party now heading Israel's government was heading for a loss in next month's election. Strong-man Binyamin Netanyahu had his right-wing party Likud on track for victory, so if Kadima's new leader Tzipi Livni was to stand a chance, she needed a game-changer. Operation Cast Lead is the result. The parties have suspended campaigning while the war is waged and Livni, like her counterparts in Hamas, hopes that voters rally round the flag in a time of fear and anger (even if it is fear and anger that the politicians have themselves created).

Success in Gaza – if that can be achieved in Israeli terms and if such a word can be applied to such death and destruction – is also a way for Israel to re-establish some national self-esteem after the humiliating July War in Lebanon in 2006.

And so over a thousand Palestinians and more than a dozen Israelis die. What a price to pay for elections and ego.

In the Middle-East, it's also fair to say that all politics is regional; even global. Syria and Iran support and supply Hamas's terrorist campaigns. (Some foreign policy analysts argue that Hamas is actually part of "Iran's empire"). The US rallies behind Israel, making its excuses for it.

While other countries stoke the fires, they are also essential to any solution. We all know that long-term there is no resolution without decisions about Jerusalem, compensation for the Palestinian refugees, borders, and more. But even in the short-term, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iran, and even the Gulf states must get involved politically and financially if some sort of peace deal is to stick. Signs of a ceasefire negotiated by Egypt are hopeful, but other countries must also commit if the peace is to last.

I must also mention President George Bush's final press conference. I've read most of it because I can hardly bear to watch the video of it. He is so awkward and still, after all these years, so clearly not up to the demands of the job. He was "the decider" through some crucial years, but decisions without deep understanding of the issues involved, with little strategy and even less wisdom and transparency are worse than no decisions at all. He was been a disaster as president, and he still looks dumbfounded, even at the end.

Bush used the words "disappointment" and "disappointed" 13 times. But perhaps the most callous use was when he referred to the fact that, despite his justifications for war, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way.

A significant disappointment? Several hundred thousand people died because of that lie (or "intelligence failure"). The world has been tilted on its political axis. The legacy of anger and grief will last generations. And he's disappointed? The lack of self-awareness leaves me gasping.

Bush was elected as the front-person for 'compassionate conservatism', but he has shown little compassion and less conservatism. He has been violent and extreme in his policies. Good riddance.

Finally, punditeers, let me say 'happy new year' to you all. We'll be getting the Pundit show back on the road over the next week or two, with the News Briefs and regular pundits returning. It's going to be a fascinating year, so stay tuned.