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January 18, 2008

All talk and no action ME

National

January 18, 2008

It’s the occupation, stupid!” That was the writing on the huge sign carried by a Palestinian demonstrator as the 45-car motorcade carrying the US President George W. Bush and his entourage drove to Ramallah from occupied Al-Quds without stopping at the notorious Israeli checkpoint for his talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

That was the essence of the give-and-take the visiting American president had with the leaders of four Arab states - Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia - he visited after his talks with the Palestinian leader and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

My source is no other than Bush himself in his roundtable with the press corps that accompanied him on his first tour, eight days long, to the Arab World by an American president and just before his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm Al Shaikh on the Red Sea.

President Bush reported: “There’s probably more interest (in the Arab world) in my discussions on the Middle Eastern peace (than any other topic). Many of the leaders in the region, many of the people I have spoken to equate troubled times with no peace between the Palestinian and Israelis. It’s the subject matter that - if you follow this subject, you know that this is on a lot of people’s minds.

“And so they were - the (Arab leaders) wanted to make sure that the efforts by the United States were real, and how we conducted our policy wise.

“It’s interesting, they weren’t all that interested in, okay, give me the negotiating points, or, where are you, or, what are the talking points on both sides, or where are we in the negotiations. They’re interested in commitment and vision.”

He continued:

“The first question in their mind is, one, why do I sound optimistic. Two, are we going to spend the time and effort to help move the process. I made it clear to them that in order for this to work, they’ve got to be supportive

of the Palestinians, and make it clear that Israel is an important part of the future of the Middle East ... .

“This issue is kind of the touchstone in their mind for a lot of other problems in the Middle East; you solve this, then a lot of other problems go away. I hope they’re right on that. But this is, no question, a very important issue ...

“We spent a lot of time on this subject in each stop, because they’re most interested in getting my point of view about how I think the process is going to unfold, what are the problems, what can the US do to help, and will we be actively involved. They have this great hope that the United States’ involvement will cause the process to be more likely to move forward.”

That’s precisely what has infuriated Afif Safieh, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s mission in Washington, who was in Ramallah for the historic visit of Bush.

Deploring what he saw as “static diplomacy” in spite of “the thousands of hours that are invested in talk about talks, negotiating pre-negotiations and pre-negotiating negotiations”, he underlined that “the situation continues to deteriorate: the inhuman siege of the Gaza Strip and the daily bombardments, the frequent and repeated Israeli military incursions in the urban centres of the West Bank, settlement expansion mainly in and around occupied East Al-Quds and the number of checkpoints that was not reduced, strangulating the society and suffocating the economy.” All this probably explains, in part, why Bush was not particularly successful in convincing the Gulf Arabs to support the anti-Iran campaign that he and his Israeli friends are waging, or the reluctance of the oil-producing countries to turn on their oil spigot.

And more importantly, his failure to see the urgent need to end forthwith the schism within the Palestinian ranks which serves no one except the spoilers.

Despite his disappointing views on some aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict - “right of return” and readjustments (voiced in the infamous Sharon letter) in the final Israeli-Palestinian border to accommodate the colonies in the East Al-Quds areas, there is no doubt that Bush has had some far-reaching remarks when he supported a “contiguous” Palestinian state, elimination of checkpoints and roadblocks, ending the occupation, and a return to the 1949 armistice lines.

The high-sounding rhetoric has understandably led some Arabs to feel sceptical about the American position. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating; and Bush has several more months to make good on his vision for a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state. —GN

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