It is hard to know if we should be pleased or terrified that US President George W. Bush Monday signaled renewed involvement by the United States in Arab-Israeli peace-making. It is certainly vital to have direct American engagement in order to move ahead on this issue. But if such engagement is biased, half-hearted in spirit, and ideologically motivated by wider American battles in the region, then Washington’s involvement becomes a force for aggravating rather than resolving conflicts.
I fear that Bush’s call for movement on Arab-Israeli peace-making reflects the latter concerns, and will not get very far if current positions prevail all around. Yet this is also an opportunity that the Arab world should not simply dismiss out of hand because of Bush’s obvious bias toward Israel and antipathy toward Hamas. We should call Bush’s bluff, and indeed find out if he is the one bluffing or not.
We in the Arab world and reasonable people everywhere should take this as an opportunity to nudge Washington toward a more balanced and constructive role. A good place to start is Bush’s own remarks on Monday, which reflect the same combination of ignorance and bias that drive America’s ugly engagement in Iraq. Three problems need to be cleared up.
The first is the legitimacy of the peace-making process and its framework. Bush’s attempt to define the ground rules of re-engagement for peace-making in terms of what was convenient for America because it was acceptable to Israel was farcical. It will only perpetuate long-standing constraints in American mediation efforts. Bush demanded much more specific gestures from Arabs and Palestinians than from the Israelis, and he continues to shift the markers for peace-making. His call for “a territorial settlement, with mutually agreed borders reflecting previous lines and current realities, and mutually agreed adjustments means that the “current realities of Israeli settlements are a factor to be acknowledged, despite the fact that scores of United Nations resolutions over the last 40 years say they are illegal and must be removed.
Bush diluted this issue further by saying that “Israelis should find other practical ways to reduce their footprint without reducing their security, making smaller shoe sizes the new standard for compliance with international law, rather than ending the brutal colonization that Israeli settlements represent. Serious peace mediators and negotiators do not start by mangling the law and leaning to one side among the disputants.
The second problem with Bush’s approach was that he took sides in the political quarrel among Palestinians, trying to wipe away Hamas and assert the dominance of President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party. Hamas deserves criticism on some serious counts, no doubt, but its fate must reflect the democratic will of the Palestinians. Attacking Hamas and supporting Abbas through the ideological bias of a US president prodded by Israeli wishes and pro-Israeli domestic American fanatics totally contradicts the principles of third-party mediation in peace talks.
Bush will not be taken seriously by anyone when using the following terms to refer to Hamas or its recent actions: terror and death; extremists; a danger; terror and violence; forces of radicalism and violence; acts of aggression and terror; extremism and murder; a lawless and violent takeover; chaos and murder; terror and cynicism and anger; extremists; murderers in black masks; summary executions; men thrown to their death from rooftops, chaos and suffering; the endless perpetuation of grievance; betrayed the Palestinian people; and more.
Yet Bush was correct to say: “This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians. And now comes a moment of choice. Yet he needed to recognize that this also applied to him: Washington must decide if it wants to be a cosmic morality warrior, Israel’s unique guardian above all other values, or a credible mediator to promote equal rights for Palestinians, Israelis, and other Arabs. It cannot be all three at once.
The third problem with Bush’s approach was his tendency to mix up the specifics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian political feud with his “global war on terror. He remains understandably obsessed with the terror threat, but he should not let it totally cloud his ability to think rationally about the causes and solutions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are very different issues. By combining them in a single worldview, he made the US, in one fell swoop, a global intellectual buffoon, a major global instigator of new terrorism via adventures such as Iraq, and a discredited and marginal player in Arab-Israeli peace-making.
These are all “correctable problems in the American position, as are the corresponding weaknesses in Arab, Israeli, European and Russian stances. We should all collectively encourage Bush and the US to pursue Arab-Israeli peace-making, but in a credible, realistic and honest way, not by imposing conceptual and diplomatic roller coasters, horror shows, trick mirrors and shoot-outs at the OK Corral. Rami G. Khouriis published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.