Bush and a Mideast Plan: Repetition of Past Mistakes

When did President Bush become a member of Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party ? His long-awaited speech on Monday 24th June 2002 in the White House Rose Garden certainly gave an indication that he was a member.  After a few minutes of listening and watching President Bush outline his ‘vision’, courtesy of CNN, I could only shake my head in despair trying to curb the disappointment about what he had to say. Like his predecessors, his administration is repeating the mistakes of the past and actually charting a murky vision for the future.

On the 8th June 2002 he said that he did not know “what was feasible” in shaping a Middle East settlement. Perhaps this was an indication of what would surely follow? One would have thought he would have been fully briefed by those whose future rested not in the forthcoming mid-term elections. Instead his speechwriters seem echo the mind of Mr. Sharon, uncompromising and fully one-sided in his condemnation and blame for the moribund peace process.

The fact that Mr. Bush’s brother Governor Jebb Bush is facing a tough election campaign in Florida could be an explanation for him holding back in making a commitment to the peace efforts. With so many Jewish votes in that state,  Mr. Bush is not likely to do anything that would alienate Jewish voters – whose support for the Republicans is growing – by going head-to-head with Ariel Sharon.

What he said on the 24th came as a grave disappointment, if not a surprise, for Palestinians and Israelis who wanted a signal that he has a plan that might give hope to Palestinians and security to Israel. To those desperate Palestinians, his statement was yet another nail in the coffin of their despair translated into another potential outrage and consequent military incursions with the usual life and death ramifications. If the leader of the world’s only super-power did not have a clue how to solve an exotic problem then who, with credible muscle does ?

Consistently the stern warnings inherent in his June 8th speech gave way on Monday to a declaration that Arafat must give up reins of power. One can observe that his failed demand on April 4th  that Sharon withdraw his forces from Ramallah et al has taught him that this could be a painful experience. Mr. Bush mouthed the words on Monday for sure, but the hand that wrote the speech was Mr. Ariel Sharon. How else can one explain Mr. Bush’s call for changing the Palestinian leadership, a daring imposition and intervention in internal Palestinian affairs and a contradiction to democracy and the outcome of elections that were supervised by, inter alia, the US?

Mr. Bush is certainly no visionary . He does not strike the pose of a leader who has the courage to stand firm on morality and principle by applying a non-negotiable vise grip of diplomacy that is necessary to get a peace deal, one that will stick permanently whether both sides like it or not.

Mr. Bush said, ” For the sake of all humanity things must change in the Middle East”, and that it was untenable for Israeli citizens ‘to live in terror’. It was at this five-minute juncture that feelings of grave disappointment began to creep in. Is this correct that only Israeli citizens live in terror?  Someone forgot to tell him of the fifty years of creeping dispossession and the silent scream experienced by the dispossessed who saw their lands and their precious olive groves being taken away by the Israeli government, to become the property of immigrants, strangers for sure whiles they, the salt of the earth type become refugees in their own country. Surely the outgoing administration would have briefed him about the terror unleashed by the incoming Sharon government against Palestinians especially in the wake of the Al-Aqsa interlude?

His careful dis-formulation came as a sequel to a sixth face-to face meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s abortive attempt to sell the Saudi plan. His speech did not signal much of an advance beyond his June 8th address. Much of his language concerning Israel was virtually identical and he offered no new ideas on how to resolve the vexing issue concerning the re-occupation of Palestinian territory as well as the excesses committed by Ariel Sharon in the occupied territories.

Mr. Bush did not address the question of ongoing Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, if one listened carefully, did he did not repeat his demand for an immediate withdrawal of the IDF.

 If anything his speech reflected who won the  raging  internal debate between Mr. Bush and his senior advisers which focused on whether strengthening institutions in the Palestinian Authority might be an avenue to orchestrate the removal or sidelining of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader. In his speech, Mr. Bush betrayed his own leanings in this direction. He sided squarely with the Israeli government’s position that there can be no peace in the Middle East as long as Mr Arafat and his aides lead the Palestinian people.

This crystallizes his belief enunciated on the 8th that there was ‘plenty of talent among the Palestinians’ and that ‘the issue is bigger than one person.’

Still, Mr. Bush’s emphasis on peace being conditional upon the removal of  Mr Arafat falls substantially short of Palestinian hopes that the president would begin to lay out a political vision for a statehood and a time line to achieve it. The spaniel press in the US made a Herculean effort to pass over the fact in silence, but the fact that Mr Bush is treated with abject derision among the very talent he relies upon and that he has become the laughing stock amongst the world’s leadership is reflected in the very myopathy he suffers from.

Hosni Mubarak, to his obvious disappointment, went to Washington with a hope that Mr. Bush would latch firmly on to the two-state paradigm. His straightforward message, set forth in an interview in Cairo before he departed, was that left to themselves, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat would never conclude a peace agreement. America is the indispensable galvanizer of peace. The Arab world, according to Mr. Mubarak, was pinning its hopes on Mr. Bush to play the “heavyweight” role played by his predecessors – including his father, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Specifically, Mr. Mubarak had gone to Washington with the clear mandate to press for a clear time line for political negotiations on a permanent settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, with the additional twist that he hoped Mr. Bush would endorse the early declaration of a Palestinian state. The particulars of its borders and capital could then be left for the political negotiations.

Early statehood, Mr. Mubarak said, would give hope to Palestinians and, more important, give them an incentive to end the violence they continue to direct against Israel.

Judging from Mr. Bush’s oracle Hosni  Mubarak got none of what he was expecting.

No doubt Ariel Sharon must have leaned hard on Mr. Bush against any American peace plan whose goal was other than the effective removal of Mr. Arafat.  In many ways Mr. Bush’s speech represented a deliberate abandonment of neutrality by the administration which has overtly adopted the stance of Ariel Sharon that Yassir Arafat was no longer relevant to the peace process and that security and political change had to precede negotiations about a Palestinian state.