The first Presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama remarkably failed to raise or even mention their future involvement in President Bush’s proposal to create a new Arab State between Israel and Jordan.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo and eliminating America’s reliance on oil from the Middle East were all raised during a wide ranging discussion on American foreign policy. Israel was fleetingly mentioned by the contestants as they jointly pledged their determination to ensure that Iran’s threat to eliminate the Jewish State would never be allowed to happen.
Palestine and President Bush’s Roadmap were left out in the political wilderness.
This apparent lack of enthusiasm by both McCain and Obama indicates the sobering reality that President Bush’s Roadmap has reached a dead end so far as America’s future involvement in trying to bring it to fruition is concerned. No doubt there will be occasions during the remainder of the Presidential campaign when efforts are made to engage McCain and Obama but their responses will be half hearted at the best.
This position has certainly not come about for want of trying.
President Bush - like Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush Senior and Clinton before him - invested a large amount of his authority, prestige, personal time and active involvement in attempting to bring peace between Jews and Arabs. All of them have ended up being humiliated and getting egg on their face for their efforts.
The stumbling block this time - according to the Arabs - is the Jewish cities towns and villages established in the West Bank since 1967 mainly on State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes - collectively called “the settlements”.
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority once again repeated his mantra in front of the United Nations Security Council this week when declaring:
"Settlement activity is not only an obstacle but it risks undermining the peace process,”
Abbas stubbornly continues to reject Israel’s offer to resettle 70000 Jews and to cede an area of land from within its own sovereign state boundaries to compensate for the retention of those remaining settlements that house 400000 Jews and businesses in the West Bank. Abbas wants all the Jews tossed out and is apparently prepared to throw away the opportunity to get his State if he does not get his way.
The stumbling block this time - according to Israel - is the Arab insistence that millions of Arab refugees and their descendants be resettled in Israel - rather than in the new West Bank State.
President Bush has come down heavily in support of Israel’s stance on both issues recognising that the removal of all Jews from the West Bank and the resettlement of millions of Arabs in Israel is simply not going to be agreed to - and can never be agreed to - by Israel.
A last ditch stand by America to try and modify both of these Arab demands over the past ten months has met with embarrassing failure. Both of these contentious issues have been pressed by the Arabs for the last 40 years and nothing has occurred in Arab thinking to change or moderate them over that period.
It is therefore completely understandable that neither McCain nor Obama was really interested in flogging a dead horse. The Bush proposal was simply not worth discussing any longer.
In taking this stance, McCain and Obama were probably mindful of the sentiments expressed in two polls conducted among Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza this week.
Only 27.5% of the 1270 adults interviewed by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research believed the chances for the creation of the new state between Israel and Jordan were medium to high whilst 69.2% rated the chances as low to non-existent.
Encouragingly however 28% of the 1380 adults interviewed by the A-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus supported the idea of the establishment of a joint Palestinian - Jordanian state.
Perhaps these surveys herald the starting point of a new approach - involving the active participation of Jordan - in resolving the territorial dispute in the West Bank and Gaza, the humanitarian issues involving the Arab residents living there and the refugees who continue to languish in the refugee camps situated in the surrounding Arab states.
Opposition to Jordan’s involvement was expressed at a conference held by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last weekend when former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher declared:
“Good luck finding Jordanians who will accept this idea. This is a non-starter.” (Jerusalem Post 23 September)
Former Head of Israel’s National Security Council Giora Eiland however was reported as saying in the same article that “tacit support for this idea has been expressed in private talks.”
Hopefully the international community - and America especially - will not be phased by this apparent case of stage fright from a player destined to once again share the spotlight with Israel as the two central characters in the continuing effort to end the conflict that has bedevilled the region for 130 years.
Jordan’s return to centre stage would cap a remarkable comeback. Jordan was the last Arab occupier of the West Bank between 1948-1967 and continued as the prime Arab interlocutor until 1974 when replaced by the PLO with Arab League approval. Having ceded all claims to the West Bank in 1988, Jordan once again could now find itself cast in the role of preserving at least some part of the West Bank and its Arab population under Arab sovereignty.
The alternative to Jordanian involvement is the renewal of terrorism and possibly war. Such outcomes will not only involve Israel, the West Bank and Gaza - but will surely spread to Jordan.
The time for Jordan to quit its delicate tightrope act is fast approaching.
There is nothing so dangerous as being left suspended in mid-air with no one to break your fall.