Tale of two visits

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Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to Washington marks a new phase in Palestinian-US relations, one in which the US is willing to take an active part in promoting a Middle East peace settlement, in which Israel no longer has exclusive access to Washington’s ear and in which there is now a direct link, through the person of then Palestinian prime minister, between the PA and the White House.

This phase was a long time in coming. There were numerous impediments, the foremost being certain attitudes the current US administration inherited from its predecessor. President Clinton had — unjustly — held President Yasser Arafat responsible for forfeiting a historic opportunity to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at Camp David II. He therefore advised president elect Bush not to waste his energies on the Middle East because the Palestinians were not yet ready to sign an agreement and, instead, to give Israel full leeway to “defend itself” until the Palestinians were ready to accept the conditions Arafat turned down at Camp David. The Clinton administration further recommended that his successor sever all dealings with Arafat and begin the search for a new Palestinian leadership.

Nor should we underestimate the impact of the repercussions of 11 September on the situation. Not only did Washington charge that the Arabs were insufficiently committed to cooperating with the US in the fight against terrorism, pro-Israeli forces deftly exploited the post-11 September climate to muddy the waters further through a sustained campaign to depict Arab and Islamic societies as prone to fundamentalist violence and to brand the Palestinian resistance movement as terrorist. The campaign succeeded in making Washington more pro- Israeli than ever, evidence of which manifested itself following the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Rather than checking the outrages perpetrated by Israeli occupation forces it actively protected Israel from international censure by blocking the creation of a fact-finding committee on the crimes against humanity perpetrated in Jenin and Nablus.

Much of the credit for Washington’s renewed attention to the Middle East conflict, and specifically to the Palestinian cause at its heart, is due to Cairo, Riyadh and Amman, which succeeded in persuading the Bush administration that only with intensive US involvement would it be possible to halt the cycle of bloodshed between the Palestinians and Israelis. These efforts bore tangible fruit in the US-Arab summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, during which the US president reaffirmed his commitment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. True, Washington is still more open to Israeli points of view, but as a result of Arab efforts it has begun to show some sympathy to Palestinian- Arab causes.

Let us not forget that George Walker Bush is the first US president to officially support the creation of an independent, viable Palestinian state and to put forward a comprehensive plan for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning with the Palestinian track.

Abbas’s recent visit to Washington, I believe, crowned this breakthrough in Arab-US relations. Armed with the truce agreements with the Palestinian resistance factions, demonstrating his ability to control the situation in Palestine, and with solid support from Arab capitals, a message he ensured would be conveyed to Washington by having first called on the Egyptian and Jordanian heads of state, the Palestinian prime minister was in an excellent position to outline a number of demands.

The general thrust of the visit was to appeal to Washington to sustain its commitment to the full implementation of the roadmap and to bring the necessary pressures to bear on Israel to ensure it fulfills its obligations. Specifically, he urged the Bush administration to ensure that Israel halts construction of the so- called security fence in the West Bank, withdraws its forces from Palestinian cities reoccupied since the outbreak of the Intifada, begin the release of the approximately 6,000 Palestinian political detainees in Israeli prisons and take concrete measures to alleviate the daily suffering of the Palestinian people. In presenting such demands Abbas was clearly drawing on personal experience in dealing with Israel. In view of Israel’s notorious record of wriggling out of its commitments under agreements signed with the Palestinians, from Oslo through Wye River, he fully realises the need for a binding mechanism that renders the parties accountable.

The Palestinian prime minister’s visit to Washington took place in a climate that is more propitious than ever for an agreement to emerge that will set the region on the path to true and lasting peace. Drawing on his lengthy experience in defence of the Palestinian cause and his close relations with Arafat and other Arab leaders, Abu Mazen realises that the time is ripe to transform years of armed struggle into tangible gains on the negotiating table. In addition, in spite of the ultra-conservative nature of the current Israeli government, he recognises that Sharon is the only person capable of reaching, and delivering on, an agreement with the Palestinians. Nor is he alone in this conviction. After all, as President Mubarak pointed out, it was Sharon who personally drove the bulldozer that began the raising of the Yamit settlement in northern Sinai in fulfillment of one of the conditions of the peace agreement with Egypt.

Realism, cool-headedness and clarity of vision — these qualities, too, helped Abbas press home his points of view to US officials. A significant testimony to his success was Bush’s stance on the Israeli separation wall: “It is difficult to build confidence between the Palestinians and Israelis with a wall snaking through the West Bank,” Bush said. Then, in a press conference following his meeting with Bush, Abbas said that when the US president saw a map depicting the placement of the wall he asked: “And where is the Palestinian state supposed to be? We want two states, one Israeli and the other Palestinian.”

The Bush administration’s position on the wall had earlier been voiced by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice during her recent visit to the region, provoking an angry exchange between her and members of the Israeli cabinet. The wall creates new realities on the ground and risks being interpreted as demarcating a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank.

Although Bush seemed somewhat reticent on the issue of Palestinian detainees, a sign of the impact of the Abbas visit could be seen in the Israeli government’s approval of the release of 540 Palestinian prisoners. These included more than two hundred detainees from Fatah and another 210 from Hamas and Jihad. The remainder are ordinary offenders.

More palpable were the financial gains Abu Mazen obtained for his country during this visit. In addition to an immediate $20 million to assist the PA in rebuilding the Palestinian economy and lay the foundations for an independent state, Bush instructed his secretaries of treasury and trade, John Snow and Don Evans, to go to Palestine in September in order to study what measures can be taken to build strong economic institutions for an independent Palestinian state. Bush also announced that the US and the PA will form a joint economic group to create job opportunities and explore ways to boost the Palestinian economy.

On a more far-reaching level, I believe that Abbas succeeded in driving home to the US administration how skewed Israeli attitudes to security are. The PA, he told US officials, had restored calm in Palestinian territories, succeeding where Israel’s massive military might had failed. The implications of this cannot be overstated. Israel will never be able to realise security through force of arms. I also believe that Bush now agrees with Abu Mazen that it is not names but results that count. In reaching understandings with the Palestinian factions over the notion of a truce Abbas delivered on his commitment under the first phase of the roadmap, thereby nullifying Israeli demands that he dismantle Palestinian resistance organisations. As he put it: “We told them [the Israelis] that as long as we were able to reach a truce, why should we use violence against our people?”

No sooner had Abbas left Washington than the Israeli prime minister made his appearance, on his eighth visit to the US capital. His primary mission was to roll back the progress made by Abbas. Sharon’s first tactic was to meet with the leaders of American Jewish organisations in advance of his call on the White House, obviously in order to remind Bush of the weight of the Jewish vote in forthcoming presidential elections. His second was to go on the offensive in his meetings with US officials. His government would go ahead with the construction of the separating wall, he said. And rejecting the notion of a truce, he called for “the complete dismantlement of Palestinian terrorist organisations”.

Contrary to the assertions of some, I do not believe that Sharon succeeded in his mission. That Bush continued to express reservations over the wall, even after Sharon left, saying that the subject was sensitive and needed further discussion, indicates the progress Abbas made in persuading Washington of the rationality of Palestinian positions. In all events, in assessing the results of his trip to Washington, we must bear in mind the three-year legacy of deteriorating Arab- US relations in conjunction with the specific nature of Washington’s relations with Israel. Once we do, we can only conclude that the Abbas visit marks a turning point in the US- Israeli-Palestinian triangle.

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