President Bush, supposedly the world’s most powerful man, is being humiliated and hung out to dry by the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League as they use their collective muscle to try and change the focus and possibly cause the cancellation of next month’s international meeting called by the President.
Mahmoud Abbas - President of the Palestinian Authority and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation - had no compunction in telling President Bush to his face what the agenda should be for that meeting when they met at the Waldorf Astoria in New York on 24 September :
“Mr. President, these days we feel hopeful and we feel and we sense the hope, especially after the call to convene an international meeting during the month of November. We believe that this meeting should deal with the substance and issues of substance that would lead to full negotiations on the permanent status that would lead to a permanent peace and a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Threats of boycotting the meeting by Abbas and various Arab states if the agenda does not meet these demands has sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice into a spin as she embarks on yet another of her trips to the Middle East .
She will be desperately trying to find a face saving formula to bring the Arab States - especially Saudi Arabia - to the November meeting.
President Bush needs to show he can deliver the Arab States to meet with Israel. It is a critical element in building Israel’s confidence to continue negotiations to create an Arab State - the 23rd - between Israel and Jordan.
The Arabs apparently are not so ready to oblige. Their attempt to subvert the meeting by changing the President’s planned agenda is in distinct contrast to their frequent statements applauding President Bush for his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
President Bush certainly had no intention of creating a putative peace conference of the kind demanded by Abbas when he announced the proposed meeting on 16 July stating:
“The world can do more to build the conditions for peace. So I will call together an international meeting this fall of representatives from nations that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognize Israel's right to exist, and commit to all previous agreements between the parties. The key participants in this meeting will be the Israelis, the Palestinians, and their neighbors in the region. Secretary Rice will chair the meeting. She and her counterparts will review the progress that has been made toward building Palestinian institutions. They will look for innovative and effective ways to support further reform. And they will provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations, so that we can move forward on a successful path to a Palestinian state“.
This was the way President Bush saw his vision of the two state solution now being best advanced - a solution which has been in deep trouble ever since the President first proposed it four years ago.
Much had changed in the immediate region in just twelve months to bring the President to call this meeting - the ascendancy of Hamas to political control of Gaza, the flight of Abbas and his Fatah faction from Gaza, the sacking of the Palestinian Government, the war in Lebanon and Hezbollah‘s resurgence.
The international meeting was intended and designed as a new and important confidence building block on the way to successfully progressing bilateral discussions and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority - after the last fourteen years of negotiations had got the parties nowhere.
Those negotiations had failed because of the uncompromising stance adopted by Abbas and his predecessor Arafat on two issues of substance demanding that Israel :
(i) withdraw to the pre-June 1967 armistice lines and
(ii) permit millions of Arabs to go and live in Israel.
Abbas now claims that these issues can be resolved within six months of President Bush’s meeting if Abbas’ agenda is adopted - which indicates a total flight from reality. His stance on these issues mirrors the policy of the Arab leadership for the last 40 years. To believe these issues can now be successfully negotiated in six months is the height of absurdity.
The Palestinian Arabs have become victims of their own rhetoric.
It now needs an exceptionally strong leader to take them down a different path and to disavow these fanciful notions - especially when the current Palestinian Arab leadership is so divided and President Bush has made it clear that Israel could not be reasonably expected to meet these demands.
President Bush correctly assessed that Abbas is pathetically weak at the present time and cannot make any concessions on these issues - let alone carry them through -in the face of strident Hamas opposition.
President Bush saw this international meeting as a launching pad to firmly install Abbas in the driving seat. Abbas would steadily assert his credibility and influence with his constituency by firstly rebuilding a totally dysfunctional society with the aid of international financial backing and secondly by receiving diplomatic support to encourage him to change his current intransigent stance on these core issues.
However President Bush’s attempt to chart this path of hope for the future is rapidly descending into high farce. The Arabs don’t want to play ball - Arab intransigence on these core issues still rules the roost.
The Arabs will only have themselves to blame if President Bush washes his hands of the conflict and lets the cards fall where they will.
Will the Arabs blow an opportunity yet again to replace misery and suffering with hope for a better life and brighter future for everyone in the Middle East?
Their current behaviour can only alienate and offend the United States and push it closer towards Israel - its only truly reliable ally in the Middle East.
The two state vision so earnestly supported by a United States President will probably not present itself again.
It’s a crucial make or break time for the two State solution.
Egg on the face is not appreciated by anyone - especially the President of the United States.