Bush's call for Arab-Israeli peacemaking reflects the ignorance & bias that drive the U.S. ugly engagement in Iraq.
By Rami G. Khouri
BEIRUT -- It is hard to know if we should be pleased or terrified that the U.S. President George W. Bush Monday signaled renewed American involvement in Arab-Israeli peace-making. It is certainly vital to have direct American engagement in order to move ahead on this issue. So signs of American direct activism are to be welcomed in principle. But if such engagement is biased among the principal parties, 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. Still, this is an opportunity that the Arab world should not simply dismiss out of hand because of Bush's obvious bias towards Israel and antipathy towards Hamas. We should call Bush's bluff, and indeed find out if he is bluffing or serious.
We in the Arab world -- and reasonable people everywhere -- should take this as an opportunity to nudge Washington towards 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 drives America's ugly engagement in Iraq.
Three principal problems need to be cleared up:
The first is the basic issue of the legitimacy of the peace-making process and framework. Bush's attempt to unilaterally define the ground rules of re-engagement for peace-making in terms of what is convenient for American politicians -- because it is acceptable to Israel -- is farcical, and perpetuates long-standing constraints in American mediation for peace. He demands much more specific gestures from Arabs and Palestinians than he does from Israelis. He unilaterally and continuously shifts 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 "current realities" of Israeli settlements are a factor to be acknowledged. He blatantly ignores the scores of UN resolutions over the last 40 years that say they are illegal and must be removed.
He dilutes 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 would-be 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 is that he takes 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 an American President, prodded by Israeli wishes, totally contradicts the task of a third party external mediator for peace talks.
Bush is not taken seriously by anyone when he uses the following descriptions, as he did Monday, to demonize Hamas: "terror and death extremists". Still, Bush was correct to say: "This is a moment of clarity for all Palestinians. And now comes a moment of choice." He needs to recognize that this also applies to him: Washington must decide if it wants to be a cosmic morality warrior, or Israel's unique guardian above all other values, or a credible mediator to promote equal rights for Palestinians, Israelis, and other concerned Arabs. It cannot be all three at once.
The third problem with Bush's approach is his tendency to mix up the specifics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the intra-Palestinian political feud with his "global war on terror." He is understandably obsessed with the real 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 this single worldview, he makes his country appear to be a global intellectual buffoon: a major global instigator of new terrorists via adventures such as Iraq, and a discredited and marginal player in Arab-Israeli peace-making.
These are all correctable problems, as are the corresponding weaknesses in Arab, Israeli, European and Russian stances. We should collectively encourage Bush and the United States to pursue Arab-Israeli peace-making, but on a credible, realistic and honest path, not on a journey through conceptual and diplomatic roller coasters, horror shows, trick mirrors and shoot-outs at the OK Corral.
-- Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 pax Christi International peace Award.
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