Bush's apparently unfinished business

Category: World Affairs Topics: Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, Middle East, Occupation Views: 970

Monday, June 10 was supposed to be the end of waiting for a change in President George W. Bush's Middle East policy. Forty-eight hours before, after meeting with the president at Camp David, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a strong, perhaps even impassioned, speech to explain why the Palestinians had to have a state of their own. Although Mubarak's words were convincing, his American counterpart gave no clue as to what was going on in his mind.

The next day began predictably enough. On his sixth visit to the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made his pitch for more time, saying that the situation was not yet ready for any change in policy. The unscripted conversation then moved into unexpected ground, with Bush seeming to parrot the identical remarks he had just heard from Sharon.

Then, apparently carried away with his own words, Bush went down the well-worn track of assigning all blame to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and none to Sharon. It appeared that Bush was moving into territory that no one -- especially his own staff -- had anticipated. Neither Secretary of State Colin Powell nor National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, both of whom were at Bush's side, had anything to add, and seemed utterly impassive, if not nonplused.

At the end of the joint Bush-Sharon press conference, the wire services had an entirely new headline, since Bush evidently had bought Sharon's line 100 percent. It seemed possible, in fact, that Bush once again had strayed off the rhetorical reservation. That had happened before when Bush, carried away with his own words, went far beyond what his office had scripted. Following the press conference, as Bush moved on to another scheduled event, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer seemed to dampen, ever so slightly, what the president apparently had been trying to say. "Don't over-interpret what the president indicated," he cautioned. But no one could be sure. What Bush did say, unmistakably, was that he now wanted "some time to think". Had the president made up his mind, then, or was this just a typical extemporaneous lurch that Powell would have to repair in due time?

Only a month ago, the secretary of state had made a tactical error. While he was away ever so briefly, Bush seemed to have gone "wobbly", in the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. When Powell returned, he had to quickly right some of the damage before going on from where he had left off. This may be a similar aberration. If Bush got off the track during Sharon's visit, the harm should be quickly mendable. Whatever the Bush administration initially planned to do, it probably now should do promptly.

Bush, who likes to spring surprises, may just have been seeking a way to about-face perhaps while the rest of the world was not looking. If he waits too long, however, things might spin out of control.

For example, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has done all the heavy lifting to bring the Arab League states into agreement with his peace proposal. If the Israelis agree to return to the 1967 borders, the member states would sign a peace accord.

But, according to a White House official, "the question of returning Israel to its pre-1967 borders never came up" at the Bush-Sharon meeting.

In any case, it's unlikely that Ariel Sharon would agree to comply with the Arab proposal. Should Bush make it clear that there will be no more US aid to Israel unless a peace accord is signed, a final confrontation will begin -- and it will be a battle royal. There is no other way to begin, however, if the land-for-peace formula is ever to get off the ground.

The more one contemplates Bush's apparently false start, the more one has to wonder what really was on his mind. Perhaps the president hoped first to deal with some domestic concerns, such as his brother's uncertain prospects for re-election as Florida governor. There may be other equally worrisome problems that Bush would like to see settled before returning to Sharon and the Palestinians.

Unfortunately, the world cannot stand still until the November elections. The chance to settle the Israeli-Arab problem has to be dealt with here and now. Otherwise there are some grim prospects ahead for the Middle East -- and the US.

A consumer boycott of American products and businesses already is under way in most Arab countries. Down the line there may be more problems involving oil and the diversion of contracts from American to European suppliers. US consumer confidence already has decreased because of the uncertainty in the Middle East.

It seems highly unlikely that George W. Bush has willingly agreed to let Ariel Sharon have his way in the Middle East. As things stand now, the Israel lobby is working overtime. The House of Representatives and the Senate have signed on to similar resolutions supporting Israel, and the nation's governors have added their voices as well in support of Bush's handling of the Middle East. All this is the handiwork of the Israeli lobby and, unless Bush nips it in the bud, it will only continue and gather momentum. Postponing a showdown with Ariel Sharon and the American Israeli lobby will not make it go away -- and the longer Sharon has to dig in, the more complex things will get.

Unless there is a secret agreement which Bush has not shared, there almost certainly will never be a better opportunity to start things moving on the right track. All Bush needs to do is make it clear that there will be no more American money for Israel until Sharon becomes more reasonable.

When the Israel lobby starts its predictable tantrums, Bush can fall back on the solid assurance that all of the Arab League members, all of the European states -- indeed, most of the rest of the world -- will breathe a heartfelt sigh of relief.

While the world waits for Bush's next Delphic pronouncement, one hopes that Colin Powell will be standing in the wings. Meanwhile, one can only take solace in the though that "it's not over until it's over."

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, Middle East, Occupation
Views: 970

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