It was only after the network of Osama bin Laden had destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, part of the Pentagon in Washington, and another jetliner in Pennsylvania, did American President George W. Bush twist Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's arm.
This was to "persuade" him to let Foreign Minister Shimon Peres meet "our very own bin Laden" (Sharon's term for Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat).
Whether Bush's was motivated by a desire to further peace between Arabs and Israelis, or the need to advance his war against Islamic fanatics, the important result was that the United States finally stepped down from the fence and became directly involved in the Middle East quagmire.
On the surface at least, America's emergence from its summer slumber was an event worthy of being celebrated in the telephone booth inhabited by the remnants of Israel's "peace camp." Despite the tragic fact that thousands of Americans have been murdered in such ruthless circumstances, the recent terrorist attack on the U.S. is perhaps the deus ex machina that might save the Middle East from a conflagration.
Unfortunately, it is still too early to salute America's reentry into the arena. As one senior Western diplomat has pointed out, the Bush administration has no real intention plunging once again into the Middle East bog. The diplomat believes that as long as no common denominator looms large to link the interests of Sharon and Arafat, Bush will not be willing to put on the shoes of the mediator. Senior Washington officials know that Bush will scornfully dismiss anyone who so much as suggests he mediate between Palestinians and Israelis.
In the view of this senior diplomat, Bush's message has not changed after the catastrophic terrorist attack on New York and Washington. That message remains simply this - Bush did not cook this regional porridge and he has no intention of eating it. The conclusion therefore is that Bush will at best continue to press Sharon and Arafat not to burn the porridge too badly. Period.
The Egyptians, the Europeans and some members of the Israeli left are angry with the Americans for suddenly remembering to put the global house in order only after "bad guys" hit America on its own home turf. As the critics see it, while the same "bad guys" were murdering Israelis, subverting the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, and pulling the rug from under Arafat's feet, the Americans remained uninterested. The guiding principle of the Bush administration can be found in an interview Bush himself gave as governor of Texas. In April 2000, when he was just kicking off his presidential campaign, he told the Dallas Morning News why the Middle East was so important to America. First of all America's strategic interest was energy, and after that came the fact that Israel was its strongest ally in the region.
So as long as the Gulf states continue to sell America oil at low prices and buy its weapons at high prices it was willing to overlook their support for Islamic terror. As long as the friends of the Republican party in the Jewish community and in the Christian right continue to support Israel, Sharon will call the shots on such issues as the cease-fire with the Palestinians, the Jewish settlements in the territories, and the liquidation of Palestinians involved in anti-Israeli operations.
If Bush really intended to put the Middle East house in some order, he would first and foremost change his order of priorities. He would put such things as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, human rights, the population explosion and the spread of illiteracy ahead of, or at least on the same level as, oil, weapons, joint ventures and partisan politics.
For the moment at least, there is no room for adding to the list of his priorities the issue of American mediation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The rough outline of a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement has already been common knowledge for more than a year now. The hawks on the Israeli and Palestinian sides must decide on their own that the time has come for putting an end to the occupation and to the violence and for removing the obstacles of the Palestinian right of return and sovereignty over the "holy basin" in Jerusalem.
No deus ex machina - not even a superpower on the warpath - will ever persuade Sharon to meet Arafat to discuss the Camp David understandings, never mind the far-reaching compromises formulated at Taba.
Even if the Peres-Arafat agreement quickly leads to renewed negotiations over a final status treaty, it is difficult to believe that in order to consolidate his coalition against bin Laden, Bush will press Sharon to agree to surrendering 96 percent of the territories and partitioning Jerusalem.
However, American Secretary of State Colin Powell's request that the U.S. Congress freeze all legislative initiatives against the Palestine Liberation Organization indicates that something has definitely changed in the Bush-Sharon-Arafat triangle. Bush's new message to the Palestinians and Israelis is: "I am not going to force you to put your house in order, but at the same time, I do not want you to interfere with me as I strike blows at my enemies."
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