With President George W. Bush taking over the reins of leadership as the 43rd American president, the Middle East, once again, is thrown into a state of suspended animation. Under the Clinton administration, the Middle East process enjoyed unprecedented presidential attention, with the former president intervening personally to broker deals, apply pressure, usually on the Palestinians, and secure guarantees.
In spite of his administration’s heavy leaning towards Israel (the president’s men-and women-had the highest number of Jews and pro Zionists in history), the charismatic former president expressed the clearest signs of sympathy towards the rights of Palestinians. Pity that such sympathies did not reflect fully on his government’s policies and practices. His commitment towards Israel was unwavering and unshaken. Israel had a personal ally in Bill Clinton, whose stands had gone well beyond the traditional support of previous US governments of the state of Israel.
Eight years of Clinton involvement in this region éhe personally visited this region more than any US president and was the first to address a Palestinian legislature-left their indelible marks on all of us. In an odd way we came to love hating him and hate loving him. We loathed his secretary of state Madeline Albright, a crypto-Zionist to say the least, distrusted his personal envoy to the region, Dennis Ross, and derided Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, every time he dropped in at our Iraq-wary Gulf brothers in an attempt to secure yet another arms deal. But we admired Clinton’s respect for Islam as a benevolent religion and his understanding of Palestinian suffering; he was a great orator, a man who knew how to seek and capture historic moments.
President Bush Jr. may never want to visit our region. He has already handed over the responsibility of salvaging Middle East peace to his Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former general who led the coalition forces to victory over Iraq under Bush Sr. President Bush Jr. will unlikely burn midnight oil in marathon talks, in Camp David or Wye or any other remote facility, with Chairman Arafat and whoever wins the Israeli elections in two weeks’ time.
Clinton reveled in the challenges of foreign policy and had a genuine interest in playing the role of a peace mediator in a number of world hot spots. Bush Jr. may want to stay close to home and concentrate more on domestic policy. Still while this may change in the future, it is clear that the new president will rely more on his able staff to defuse world crisis and pursue the goals of US foreign policy.
But the Republican president will not waver from the basic tenets of US foreign policy in the region. He will be committed to Israel’s security and military superiority. But he is also keen to show that while he may not want to be personally involved in brokering peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, he would want to underline the US position as a fair broker. We have reasons to be hopeful. His father, after all, was the person who originally launched the Madrid peace process and identified its reference points; UN Security Council resolutions, under the mantra of “land for peace”.
Regardless of how we feel about the peace process, which has ebbed and flowed since it first appeared, today it is the only process that realistically promises an end to decades of conflict and injustice.
We could argue that President Bush’s administration will be able to distinguish between Israel’s right to live securely in this region, and the historic injustice that has befallen the Palestinian people for generations. We could also argue that alleviating this injustice could in itself serve that central objective of US policy in the region, which is to secure Israel’s existence and lasting peace in the Middle East.
One thing we are unlikely to do at this stage is to raise false hopes or make hasty judgments. We know that no matter how different his style will be, President Bush Jr. cannot afford not to re-engage the various parties of this region and keep the Middle East peace process alive. Soon the early features of US policy in the Middle East will become clearer. We can only hope that we will like what we will see.
Mr. Osama El-Sherif is the Editor-in-Chief of arabia.com.