The live press conference held by President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon was a mere extension to the discussions held by both men behind closed doors. Mr. Sharon appeared grim and tense, flipping continuously through his papers and occasionally searching for one of them. Moreover, he asked for the floor several times after President Bush finished answering questions raised by journalists. President Bush’s features did not express great joy or happiness either. They only revealed a polite boredom.
Both leaders tried to extenuate the degree of their uneasiness and dissatisfaction. Mr. Sharon mechanically commended President Bush for his victory in the war against Iraq, called for more boldness towards Syria and Iran and for a bigger engagement in the fight against terrorism. He then declared his refusal to halt the construction of the separation wall that would swallow up large areas of Palestinian land and would transform Palestinian cities and villages into small cantons. He also expressed his refusal to implement the road map before he is “convinced that the Palestinian government has eradicated terrorist groups and dismantled their infrastructure”.
President Bush reiterated, also mechanically, the US engagement to protect Israel and to guarantee the security of Israelis. He evoked the tight friendship between the US and Israel as if he were a salesman promoting his beauty products. However, he also revealed that there was no agreement concerning the separation wall and that he will continue discussions on this topic (the spokesperson for the White House said Wednesday, i.e. one day after the press conference, that President Bush was troubled by this wall). This is a clear message to both Israelis and Palestinians reassuring them that the US administration will follow up on the matter, that it is serious in not wanting this wall to separate between Palestinians and that the wall would not be a political border.
The US administration underlined repeatedly the importance of liberating prisoners. President Bush agreed that prisoners convicted of attacks against Israeli targets cannot be released; however, he made it clear for Mr. Sharon that the US Administration knows of 5000 detainees against whom there are no accusations, and that there are 231 minors in Israeli jails.
After reading the expressions on both President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon’s faces, one can say that Mr. Sharon is trying to buy time. Jewish American leaders he met in the States told him not to give in as September is dawning and that they would guarantee that Bush concedes to Israeli demands. That is why Mr. Sharon is taking his time. He is also waiting for the truce’s three months to end so that he can tell the Americans that he was right in not trusting the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon is deliberately ignoring the link between the failure of the truce and Israel’s not implementing its obligations according to the first phase of the road map. The removal of three checkpoints out of the 170 is a joke and so is releasing 500 detainees out of 7000, who will be replaced by a new batch of Palestinian detainees. Such a situation can no longer be tolerated by Palestinians.
I have said in a previous article that the birth of peace in the Middle East requires a caesarian operation and that President Bush needs to read the road map once more, but this time starting from the end so that he would understand how a Palestinian state that is sovereign, independent and viable could be born. The wall built by Israel might in fact be the beginning of this birth: there is no harm in this wall, given that is built on the 4th of June lines without eating up Palestinian land. Several American officials voiced that the US does not oppose this wall, and that the main issue was the tracing of its path.
If the wall is built on the 4th of June lines, then we would welcome it with open arms. We do not oppose Israel’s building a security fence traced on the 4th of June lines. This would mean that the political borders of the future Palestinian State (the final step) could in fact be drawn now with the help of experts from the quartet. They would be called the blue line.
The other important issue is the Israeli withdrawal. Israel must start by withdrawing once and for all to the lines before the 28th of September 2000, followed by other withdrawals that should have taken place 4 years ago. The Palestinians must not let themselves be led to the battlefield chosen by Mr. Sharon, who also chose the weapons to be used. There is a full ceasefire now and the truce has lasted for more than a month (Mr. Sharon used to request 7 days of ceasefire during George Tenet and General Zinni visits), so why doesn’t he now implement the Tenet plan, the Mitchel Report and the Road map?
In choosing the battlefield and the weapons, Mr. Sharon has lowered the ceiling for Palestinian demands. This was an open trap that the Palestinians fell into. It is a mystery how they did, but it seems they have not understood yet that the US administration needs them more now than at anytime before.
The US administration is facing increasing problems in the Middle East, the most important of which being Iraq due to American miscalculations, not only concerning Iraqi resistance, but also concerning difficulties on the religious and nationalist levels. How can we in fact imagine Jalal Talabani or Massoud Barazani as Presidents of Iraq (The Governing Administrative Council)? Do the Americans fully understand what such a huge error would entail? It seems not. They are entering a quagmire in Iraq because of their agents’ reports, agents who are only seeking to fulfill their own personal interests.
Another problem faced by the Americans concerns the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the US strongest Ally in the region. Paul Wolfowitz has damaged US interests severely: his strategy, based on controlling oil by occupying Iraq, changing the regime in Saudi Arabia and handing a blow to both Syria and Iran is a Zionist strategy that does not serve American interests. How long will President Bush keep on listening to such people? They are only seeking to destroy the links between the US and the peoples of the region in order to maintain a strong link with Israel. They believe this would lead to Zionists controlling the Middle East under the prevailing “American political stupidity”.
President Bush must start by defining the Palestinian state’s borders as being the 4th of June lines. He must dispatch international troops to replace Israeli soldiers everywhere in the West Bank, in Gaza and on borders. Only then would the peace process really start.
Bassam Abu-Sharif is a special advisor to Yasser Arafat.