Bush’s legacy and a squirming Rice

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It is pleasant yet sad to see the Israelis and the Americans squirming. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has flip-flopped from opposing the Mecca agreement to stating that his government neither supports nor opposes the accord, to his latest attempts to bypass US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by going to her boss to insist on the boycott of the yet to be established national unity government.

The Mecca agreement represents a clear shift in the Islamic Hamas movement from the Iranian-Syria axis to the Saudi side. In response, the head of the US diplomacy is complaining that this agreement complicates things.

This is a shameful position. It is a shame for a superpower to state that an agreement that ensures the end of violent internal killings and saves human lives complicates things. It is shameful that the Americans are demanding of Palestinians what is not demanded of the Lebanese, of the Saudis or even of the Iraqi government that is operating under US occupation.

The US has not demanded sovereign Arab countries to recognise Israel while demanding a government that is not sovereign that it recognise the state of an occupier that has yet to determine its borders.

President Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas interlocutors understood the international community’s insistence that new governments honour the agreements of previous governments, and this has happened. But the issue of what to do with the upcoming national unity government should not have come up in the run up to the tripartite meeting.

Rice, Olmert and Abbas had agreed weeks earlier to meet in order to kick start direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. All the elements for these negotiations had been in place for some time. Ever since the death of Yasser Arafat, the Israelis have dragged their feet in agreeing on the resumption of permanent status talks. The Mecca agreements strongly support Abbas in his mission to deal with the Israelis. The Hamas-Fateh agreement clearly identifies the PLO as the party entrusted to continue negotiations.

The fact that the Islamic leaders have agreed to a long-term hudna, provided that a Palestinian state is created within the 1967 borders, shows that the vast majority of Palestinians, the Arab countries, the US and the international community are all in agreement about the two-state solution. What is missing now is for the Israelis to agree to begin talks on how to accomplish this goal that US President George Bush declared to be one that his administration was hoping to accomplish.

The repeated visits by the US secretary of state has been based on Bush’s declared public call for the creation of an independent state of Palestine alongside Israel. She is empowered by her boss, the president of the US, to find a way to produce for him a good Middle East legacy that can somehow replace the negative adventures in Iraq.

Despite this declared US goal, there is doubt that Rice has the will or the full power to help produce a breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While the US’ main interest in the Middle East is Iraq, Washington seems convinced that there is a connection between Palestine and Iraq. America might use all its hard power to try to produce positive results in Iraq, but it obviously needs to work on the soft power, the one that is guaranteed to win hearts and minds, especially of Sunni Arabs.

To accomplish this, Bush needs to show at least the appearance of movement on the Palestinian issue. For the Americans, the photo opportunity with Abbas is valuable. The question is whether Abbas is able to exert from the Americans and Israelis more than just smiles and handshakes in front of clicking cameras.

But this US Iraqi policy using the Palestinians has a problem. If the Americans want to win over Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, they can’t anger the leaders of the worldwide Sunnis, the Saudis. If the Americans want to win over more Iraqi Sunnis, they have to be careful about how they finally deal with the accord produced and signed in the shadow of Islam’s holiest mosque. No wonder Rice feels that the Mecca agreement complicated things.

If Rice is fully committed to producing a political breakthrough, she will be forced to do what she did when she dealt with Lebanese Hana Siniora’s government even though it included Hizbollah ministers. Allowing the Israelis to get away with more foot-dragging is equal to a rejection of the Saudi-sponsored Mecca deal. Rice’s mission is not easy. It doesn’t often happen that one sees the secretary of state of the world’s only superpower, squirming.

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