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Middle East: full speed to nowhere

Alek D. Epstein, professor at the Open University of Israel, for RIA Novosti - On Sunday, George W. Bush completed what has been announced as his final visit to the Middle East as president. In five days, he visited Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Alek D. Epstein, professor at the Open University of Israel, for RIA Novosti - On Sunday, George W. Bush completed what has been announced as his final visit to the Middle East as president. In five days, he visited Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Most attention was drawn to the first and main stage of his tour - his visit to Israel, which was timed for the 60th anniversary of its independence. During his three days there, which abounded in greetings, mutual compliments, and assurances of the indestructible union of the two democracies, Bush made a speech in the Knesset, took part in the jubilee conference supervised by Israeli President Shimon Peres, and visited Mt. Masada, the site of a fortress on the shores of the Dead Sea. Masada was the last stronghold of the Zealots during the Great Revolt against Roman rule in 66-73 A.D. It is one of the greatest symbols of the Jewish people's heroism. Conscripts drafted into Israel's armored forces take an oath there: "Masada shall not fall again!"


Such were the symbolic elements of the trip. The practical results of Mr. Bush's visit were much more modest. Great expectations were made of this visit, but with his departure progress in the Mid-Eastern peace process seemed even less tangible, and the failures of U.S. policy more obvious. News analysts were hard put to explain why he came at all.


The five year-long American military mission in Iraq did not find weapons of mass destruction there, nor created a more or less stable semblance of democracy. Oil prices (it is a universally acknowledged truth that Bush went into the second Iraq war for cheap oil), which were below $35 a barrel in 2003, exceeded $125 by the middle of this month - a 250% rise in five years. This rise in oil prices has benefited countries which are not necessarily America's friends - in particular, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, the world's major oil exporters. Being the world's biggest importer, the United States loses billions of dollars every month. Economically, Bush's policy has promoted a rapid and substantial strengthening of countries with which the United States has rather strained relations.


Internationally, the damage done to America's prestige is obvious - the world's only superpower has proved its inability to win even a local war against a rather weak enemy, which did not have and did not use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. America has lost its main weapon - psychological dominance. Other countries are no longer afraid of it. On May 16, Senator Barack Obama called Iran, which the Bush Administration hates so much, "the single biggest beneficiary" of the Iraq war. Statements to this effect have been openly made outside the United States for several years. 


Bush's trips to Israel and the PNA-controlled territory were meant to make up for the failures in Iraq. This was the goal of American diplomacy. The reasoning was simple enough - Mahmoud Abbas is not Yasser Arafat, and Ehud Olmert is not Ariel Sharon; in their company President Bush would be able to demonstrate his leadership, describing the horizons of future peace.


But this is bizarre reasoning. After all, Bush pompously laid out his vision for a peaceful future between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs back in 2002. On April 30, 2003, the Department of State published the "roadmap" to Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Bush has met Israeli and Palestinian leaders more than once in his presidency, and held a tripartite summit in Annapolis last November. But all this diplomacy has produced almost no progress, and certainly no agreements. In the meantime, Israel has unilaterally withdrawn its troops and evacuated its residents from the Gaza Strip and north Samaria, and has almost completed the construction of its Separation Wall, which the International Court of Justice has ruled illegal.


Bush has failed as comprehensively in Israel and Palestine as he has in Iraq.

This situation has largely developed because neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leaders enjoy broad public support, which would allow them to take the unpopular decisions necessary to make progress towards an agreement. Both sides are made up of much more moderate politicians than free democratic elections would have produced. In truly representative elections Olmert's center-left government would have lost to a coalition of right-wing and religious parties headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, while Abbas would have been defeated by a Hamas candidate, be it Mahmoud as-Zahar, or Ismail Haniyeh, or someone else.


Formally supreme leaders, both Olmert (who, incidentally,  is involved in five police investigations, and will be questioned again in the next few days) and Abbas realize that de facto they are marshals without armies, because they do not have the support of the majority of their compatriots. Bush's appeals to Abbas and Olmert to cooperate for the sake of peace in the region are no more than hollow intentions, because even if these two leaders reach some agreements, they will not be able to carry them out. An attack on a mall and clinic in Israel's coastal city of Ashkelon on the day of Bush's arrival clearly showed who controls the Palestinian territories.


There is one more paradox - although Hamas won quite democratic elections to the PNA Legislative Council, which were actually imposed on the Palestinians by the Americans (which Obama rightly mentioned in his speech on May 16), the United States insists that there should be no talks with Hamas at all.


Indeed, Hamas least of all resembles an organization aspiring to peace. Its former foreign minister, as-Zahar, said during Israel's jubilee that there can be no peace with the Jewish state, and that armed struggle will be continued until the full liberation of all Palestine. Such rhetoric leaves little room for optimism. But the fact is that Hamas won the democratic elections precisely because the Americans insisted on them. A boycott of the winner by the initiator of the elections is not likely to help solve anything.


Maybe Bush came to attend the jubilee in order to demonstrate the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel? It is hard to say whether this was the main intention, but it was not achieved anyway. To many European countries, which receive envoys of Palestinian terrorists on their territory, and stage trials of Israeli generals on absurd charges of "crimes against humanity," the U.S. position looks pro-Israeli. America has been helping Israel financially for more than 30 years - this aid has already exceeded $40 billion.  But can Israel rely on U.S. support in the longer term? I regret to say that I do not think so.


Contrary to widespread delusion, the United States does not support Israel on practically any major dispute in its conflict with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. First, it has not recognized even West Jerusalem, let alone the whole of the city, as Israel's capital, and has not moved its Embassy there despite numerous resolutions. At a conference on a united Jerusalem, initiated by Peres in Israel's capital, Bush did not say a word, although more than 40 years have passed since its unification. At the conference Bush was presented by Miriam Edelson, the wife of billionaire Sheldon Edelson, the conference's main sponsor. The audience broke into applause when she mentioned a united Jerusalem, but Bush himself did not support this initiative, and said nothing on this subject even during the festive forum.


Secondly, the United States has never stated that Israel has the right to refuse the repatriation of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants. To the contrary, one of the five options for resolving the issue, proposed by all but the most pro-Israeli U.S. President Bill Clinton in December 2000, was the "right of return." This was supposed to apply primarily to those who lived in refugee camps in Lebanon, many of whom have relatives in Galilee, and Israel was pressured to allow their return out of humanitarian considerations, and by virtue of the principle of family reunion.


Thirdly, Jonathan Pollard, accused of spying for "friendly" Israel, and who later on became an Israeli citizen, has been kept in solitary confinement in an American prison for 23 years. In January 2006, Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin received 20 years in prison for transferring intelligence information to representatives of the Israeli lobby in the United States. Israel's hopes for their release on the eve of the jubilee went in smoke last April, when 85 year-old Ben-Ami Kadish was arrested on suspicions of spying for Israel in the 1980s. His case has not yet been filed in court, and he is being kept under house arrest.


Fourthly, the U.S. is adamantly against the construction or expansion of Jewish settlements in any controlled territories. Washington demanded written commitments from Israel that the Separation Wall on the West Bank would be temporary rather than permanent, and would not determine the future final borders. Israel gave such commitments on April 14, 2004. Considering that the whole point of building the Wall was to demarcate Israel and the PNA, the American position can hardly be called pro-Israeli.


Let's not forget that the United States has not recognized Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights; even now Olmert's closest political advisors do not have any illusions that Washington will recognize Israeli-annexed territories on the West Bank, no matter how deep the Israeli retreat might have been. President Bush has not revised any of these positions.


Two of his visits to Israel - in January and May of this year - have not produced any convergence between the U.S. and Israeli positions, or intensified the negotiating process. Having paid his last visit to Israel as president, Bush has left it in a total political deadlock. No matter who is elected U.S. president in November, the U.S. must seriously adjust its policy in the region. Today, U.S. diplomacy does not suggest any adequate ideas on either the Iraqi, Iranian, or Palestinian-Israeli problems. The smiles of the president and his entourage before photo and television cameras cannot conceal the complete failure of their policy in the Middle East.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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