by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Spanish counterpart Jose Maria Aznar think that Washington will make a strong push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians after a successful invasion of Iraq, they should probably think again.
While President George W. Bush may have uttered some soothing words on that score to both Blair and Aznar, Bush's closest European allies on Iraq, who repeatedly have stressed the strategic importance of reviving a credible peace process between the two sides in Palestine, the president himself appears to be acting in quite another way.
In a major address last Wednesday, Bush aligned U.S. policy even more closely with the right-wing Likud Party of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by, for the first time, conditioning an end to Jewish settlement activity in the occupied territories on progress in a new peace process.
Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Washington had insisted -- half-heartedly -- that Israel halt all settlement activity unconditionally.
"This is a complete alignment of the president along the lines of Likud principles," according to Rashid Khalidi, a historian and Middle East specialist at the University of Chicago. "It's the most important shift in U.S. policy since 1967. It's really major."
The fact that Bush delivered the address before the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a watering hole of pro-Likud organizations in Washington, was also significant.
Members of the audience included not only prominent neo-conservatives who have argued for years that Israel has a right to settle anywhere in the occupied territories, but also several who had prepared a memorandum for then Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu six years ago that called for a regional strategy, including the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a "complete break" with the Oslo peace process and steps to "secure the realm" by building a new strategic axis in the Middle East consisting of Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and a pro-Western government in Baghdad.
On Feb. 28, the U.K. and Spain called for the resumption of peace talks. "Britain and Spain again share a very common position on the absolute priority of restarting the peace process in the Middle East," Blair said, with Aznar at his side in London.
"It is our desire that we re-begin that peace process and reach that objective as soon as we possibly can, and both of us will play our full part in achieving that," he added.
But the one bone tossed by Bush to the Europeans in last week's speech was what the president called a "personal commitment to implement the road map and to reach that goal," a reference to the process by the so-called Quartet -- the European Union (EU), the United Nations, Russia, and the United States -- to secure an independent and viable Palestinian state within three years.
But even his reference to the "road map" was remarkably vague -- he did not, for example, mention the three-year deadline by which the new state was to come into being -- and everyone in the room knew already that the administration, despite repeated urgings by Blair, had vetoed the publication of a draft road map since December, precisely in order to boost Sharon's chances of winning the Jan. 28 elections. Now, Washington is saying that it opposes release of the road map pending the end of a war in Iraq.
"This administration has about as much interest in the road map seeing the light of day as it does in holding bilateral talks with North Korea," one official said this week.
A similar conclusion appears to have been reached in Israel itself, where Sharon has already rejected the road map out of hand. "The Quartet is nothing! Don't take it seriously," he told 'Newsweek' magazine just before the elections. "I don't think the United States takes it seriously."
The administration had the opportunity to contradict him on the point but failed to do so. At the same time, Sharon felt sufficiently confident to put together what veteran peace activist and former Knesset member Uri Avnery called "the most rightwing, the most nationalistic, the most extreme, the most war-like government Israel has ever had."
Meanwhile, the Palestinian death toll resulting from Israeli military operations in Gaza and the West Bank has risen sharply over the last three weeks but has failed to elicit any protest from the administration, another illustration of the degree to which Bush has aligned U.S. policy behind Sharon.
The notion that Bush would be prepared to exert any real pressure on Sharon to move toward a serious peace process in the way that his father did after the 1991 Gulf War -- by withholding housing guarantees until then prime minister Yitzak Shamir agreed to halt settlement -- is largely dismissed by Mideast experts both within and outside the administration.
Washington has already agreed in principle to provide a $12 billion package of military aid and loan guarantees over and above the annual $3 billion Israel receives in open economic and military aid. Billions more go to the Jewish state through indirect means, making it far and away the biggest recipient of U.S. aid.
Moreover, Secretary of State Colin Powell, the only cabinet-level official to actively argue in favor of pressing Israel to reduce its operations in the occupied territories, has been isolated on the issue for more than a year. Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, reflecting the views of the neo-conservatives, has even referred to the West Bank and Gaza as "so-called" occupied territories, while Vice President Dick Cheney has talked privately about how Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Yasser Arafat should be "hung."
For political reasons, the White House has been especially careful not to alienate the Christian Right, which has not only ardently supported Israel for five decades and extremist Likud positions for 20 years, but has become a source of tens of millions of dollars a year in contributions designed to expand settlements.
It also bears noting that several of the senior U.S. officials who deal most closely with Israel and Middle East issues broke publicly and explicitly with Bush's father precisely over his withholding of loan guarantees to Israel 11 years ago.
In a full-page ad taken out in 'The New York Times' in February 1992, 'The Committee on U.S. Interests in the Middle East' assailed Bush Senior's pressure on the Likud-led government to enter into negotiations based on the Madrid Peace Conference on the basis of "land for peace."
Among the signers were Elliott Abrams, the pardoned Iran-contra criminal who is currently the top official dealing with the Middle East on Bush's National Security Council; Douglas Feith, the current undersecretary of defense for policy; Dov Zakheim, another top Pentagon official; and Richard Perle, who doubles as Rumsfeld's chairman of the Defense Policy Board and the senior foreign policy doyen at AEI.
"These people have been totally identified with Likud policy for years," noted one discouraged State Department official. "Can anyone in their right mind think for even one minute that they would lend themselves to any administration campaign to actively pressure Sharon to stop settlements and make serious territorial compromises? The notion is ludicrous on its face."
March 4, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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