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    HARD TIMES FOR BUSH

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    MOSCOW, April 14.(RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya)

    US President George Bush is facing the challenging task of tackling the Middle Eastern problem against the background of the US failure in Iraq. On Monday, Bush held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington. On Wednesday, he is to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. On April 21, Jordanian King Abdallah II arrives in the USA.

    The connection between Palestine and Iraq is obvious in all of these meetings, past and future. If the USA accepts defeat in Iraq, this will change the lineup of forces in the Middle East completely. Extremists and terrorists will dictate their policy to the region and Washington will be no longer able to support Israel. It will have to fight terrorists on all fronts and support for Israelis will have a negative effect on the US standing in the region.

    The extremists in Iraq who attack US troops blame the USA not only for the occupation of Iraq but also for supporting Israel. Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Arab world and other countries thought Washington was working not just for its own but also for Israeli interests in Iraq. It was also believed that the defeat of Hussein would give Washington room for manoeuvre in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Some analysts even discussed the possibility of a peace treaty between the "new" Iraqi government and Israel. They pictured a big happy Greater Middle East. Alas, it was not to be.

    Shortly after the Israelis assassinated Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin in the Gaza Strip, his portraits became an inalienable part of Iraqi demonstrations against US occupation, just as Saddam's portraits had been a feature in Palestinian streets. It appears that Arab extremists and radicals are much better at joining forces than the Arab advocates of reforms. The unresolved Palestinian problem is a suitable pretext for rallying all kinds of extremist groups.

    The Palestinian-Israeli settlement can develop in one of two scenarios. It can resume the road map route drafted by the Middle Eastern quartet of the USA, Russia, the EU and the UN. Or it can lay to rest the hope of creating the state of Palestine in the near future and, consequently, of restoring regional peace.

    Which scenario are we witnessing now? The sides are long past the deadlines set in the road map plan, yet there is no alternative to it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Izvestia that the details of the road map depend on changes in the situation but "its main goal is still gradual movement to peace and a Palestinian state through talks and co-ordinated reciprocal steps."

    The unofficial plans for the Israeli-Palestinian settlement that emerged later and even Sharon's plan of unilateral disengagement of Israel from Palestine partially fit the framework of the roadmap. "Partially" is the key word in this phrase, as no "unilateral disengagement" is possible within the framework of the roadmap. The Sharon plan and the international scheme coincide only in regard of the evacuation of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip.

    However, Moscow, Washington and Arab capitals agree that the withdrawal of Israelis from Gaza "should be viewed as an essential and positive but only the first step towards a comprehensive settlement."

    Washington has confirmed its commitment to this approach. Withdrawal from Gaza will not replace the roadmap plan, President Bush said after his talks with the Egyptian president. This is a sign meant for Israel: Washington will support the Sharon plan only if he promises to comply with the roadmap.

    The Israeli premier is ready to make this promise. However, Israel adopted the road map plan with 14 amendments, Now Washington is prepared to support Israeli's withdrawal from Gaza - with new amendments. On the whole, this Israeli step, if taken outside the framework of the comprehensive settlement, will only aggravate the problems.

    "If Palestinians become hostages again, without freedom of movement, they will hardly view the withdrawal of Israeli troops and closure of settlements as a fundamental improvement in their situation," said Sergei Lavrov. "Besides, the international community will hardly accept such steps, though they are necessary and long overdue, within the framework of unilateral disengagement."

    So, the international mediators - above all Washington, which is running a marathon of talks with Arab leaders - are facing the difficult task of incorporating Sharon's unilateral plan into the road map. It seems easy on paper but will be extremely difficult to implement, especially since a bomb planted in Palestine can blow up in Iraq.

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