Vain journey

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

George Bush speaks at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi on January 13. - SUSAN WALSH/AP

George Bush speaks at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi on January 13. - SUSAN WALSH/AP

Save for Israel, no West Asian country U.S. President George Bush visited gave him an enthusiastic welcome.

George Bush speaks

WITH his tenure nearing its end, United States President George W. Bush went on a highly publicised eight-day tour of West Asia. The avowed goals of the tour were to enhance the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace and to ensure the isolation of Iran in the region.

But the consensus, both in the U.S. and in the Arab world, is that Bush has very little to show from the trip. Arab leaders gave the lame-duck President a patient hearing but did not seem to be in a mood to listen to his dictates.

Bushs popularity rating in the Gulf region, according to a recent poll conducted by an American agency, is at 12 per cent. The poll revealed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden are much more popular than Bush in the Arab world. In many of the Arab countries, the American President was greeted by protesters. Local media coverage was generally critical of the Presidents political agenda. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was on a visit to the region around the same time, seems to have scored more diplomatic points than Bush. The French offer to share civilian nuclear technology with the Gulf Arab states was appreciated. The United Arab Emirates has given permission to France to set up a small French military base on its territory.

The American Presidents itinerary included Israel, Palestine, Kuwait, the major Gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The trip came soon after the Annapolis summit, which brought leaders of the region together. At the summit, Bush grandiosely promised to find a solution to the Palestinian issue by the end of the year. However, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, things seem to be going from bad to worse. Israel is determinedly pursuing its expansionist policies. New Jewish settlements are being built in East Jerusalem, which is supposed to be the capital of the proposed Palestinian state. Israeli forces have been targeting civilians in the Gaza Strip with impunity while trying to starve the million and a half people there into submission. Just after Bush left Tel Aviv, Israeli forces massacred 19 civilians in Gaza.

Not surprisingly, Bush received the most effusive welcome in Israel. In an interview before his West Asia tour, Bush told the Israeli media that he thought it was no longer possible for an agreement to be reached on establishing a Palestinian state before the end of 2008 and all that could be hoped for was an agreement on the definition of a Palestinian state. At the Annapolis summit, Bush had promised a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state before the end of the year. The President told the interviewer that he did not want to put any pressure on Israel to show flexibility in responding to the demands of the Palestinians.

Though Bush formally made a call, during the course of the visit, for Israel to end the occupation that began in 1967, his subsequent statements showed that he fully backed the recalcitrant policies pursued by the Jewish state. He went to the extent of describing Israel as a model state for the rest of West Asia to follow. President Bush told his Israeli hosts that the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) would have to implement the Washington-sponsored road map before meaningful talks about statehood could start. Under the terms of the road map, Israel is supposed to halt its settlement-building activities while the P.A. is obliged to disarm the Palestinian resistance groups. It is clear that the Bush administration does not consider the United Nations resolutions on the Israel-Palestine conflict as the basis for negotiations.

According to reports in the Israeli media, Bush gave the Israeli government the green light to continue with its policy of targeted killing of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip and the occupied territories. To the dismay of Palestinians, Bush extended support to the continuation of Israeli military checkpoints spread throughout the West Bank. These checkpoints have made life veritable hell for ordinary Palestinians. Many Israeli Cabinet members have called for their removal, but President Bush has decreed that they are necessary to stop terrorists from reaching Israeli cities.

Bush told the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah that it should lower its expectations about a deal that would give it back all the territories that it lost in the 1967 war and that it should forget about the right of return for the millions of refugees scattered all over the Arab world and beyond. He also made it a point to emphasise the Jewish character of the state of Israel, conveniently forgetting about the two million Palestinians who still reside there.

Throughout his trip, the American President also echoed the Israeli governments views on Iran. In the only speech he gave during his visit, he told an audience consisting of royalty and businessmen in Abu Dhabi that Iran was the worlds leading sponsor of terrorism and that its actions threaten the security of nations everywhere.

The Israeli Opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Israeli media that he was convinced about Bushs determination to end the Iranian threat. Israels Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that President Bush had completely adopted the Israeli conception of confronting the threat from Iran.

Israeli officials also said that Bush had given an assurance that Washington would provide a cover for Israeli military action against Gaza. Israel has been preparing for a military onslaught against Gaza to dislodge the Hamas-led government. Netanyahu, after his meeting with Bush, said that if matters were left to this President, he would not allow any Palestinian terrorist to remain alive. Even before Bush left Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stressed that Israel would continue to build settlements in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

The respected Israeli intellectual and commentator, Gideon Levy, wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz that there has never been anyone in the White House who granted Israel permission to enact aggression as Bush, who encouraged Israel to wage campaigns of violence and urged it to firmly establish the reality of the occupation. He went on to accuse Bush of granting legitimacy to every criminal act committed by Israel, including the expansion of settlements and the ignoring of signed agreements, some of which were made under the sponsorship of the U.S.

Bushs rhetoric, especially on Iran, evidently failed to impress his Arab hosts. Just before Bushs arrival in Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said that his country is a neighbour of Iran in the Gulf, which is a small lake. We are keen that harmony and peace should prevail among states of the region. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states no longer look at Iran through the American prism. To the surprise of Washington, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had invited the Iranian President to participate in a meeting in December 2007. Saudi Arabia had given permission to Ahmadinejad to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in late December.

Al Khaleej, a UAE daily, accused Bush of striving to transform the Arab-Israeli conflict into an Arab-Iranian conflict. The paper sarcastically noted that according to the Bush world view, nuclear Israel, which is armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction, which is aggressive, expansionist, racist and an international outlaw, does not threaten world peace. An opinion poll conducted in the region before the Bush visit showed that 80 per cent viewed the U.S. and Israel as the greatest threats. Only 10 per cent thought of Iran as a major threat. An editorial in Arab News, the English daily published from Saudi Arabia, commented on the Bush visit thus: No Palestinian, no Arab believes he will, or can, deliver. Everything he touches turns to dust and ashes. Iraq, Afghanistan maybe now even Iran.

Despite their growing disillusionment with the Bush presidency, most Arab states continue to have strong political and economic ties with the U.S. Saudi Arabia is the biggest buyer of American weaponry. In the 1990s, it bought more than $39 billion worth of sophisticated weaponry. Bush, during his recent visit, offered another $20 billion worth of weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. To ensure that Israel retains its military edge in the region, the Bush administration has offered its closest ally in the region $30 billion worth of new weapons. The Saudis are among the U.S. major creditors. They recently lent a helping hand in bailing out a large American financial institution that was on the verge of bankruptcy.

During his West Asia trip, Bush did not completely forget his pet theme of spreading democracy. In his speech in Abu Dhabi, he said that he was encouraged by the elections in Iraq and Palestine. He did not, of course, say that the elections resulted in victories for pro-Iranian parties in Iraq and Hamas in Palestine. The overthrow of Hamas is now one of the top priorities of the Bush administration and Israel. Bush said that Arab governments should expand civil liberties and allow non-violent political opposition. Without going into specifics, he talked about setbacks to democracy in the region. He pointedly refused to apportion blame to any of the governments in the region that are close allies of Washington, choosing instead to target Al Qaeda and the Iranian government. Bush blamed violent extremists who murder innocents in their pursuit of power They hate your government because it does not share their dark vision. They hate the United States because they know that we stand with you in opposition to their brutal ambitions.

In the course of his brief visit to Egypt, the biggest recipient of American largesse after Israel, there were small protests by members of banned political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in the capital Cairo. Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members continue to languish in jail. Bush chose to spend only three hours in Egypt and that too in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Interestingly, very few newspapers in Egypt had the Bush visit on their front pages. The Egyptian government is known to be unhappy with the Bush administration on a variety of issues. Under pressure from Israel, there is a move to reduce the 10-year, $15-billion U.S. aid package the Bush administration approved early this year. The U.S. Congress has already frozen $100 million out of its annual $1.3 billion in aid. Israel has been alleging that the Egyptian government is aiding the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Bush that more needs to be done to hasten the Arab-Israeli peace process. Egyptian diplomats were quoted as saying that the American Presidents visit was not aimed at resolving the differences between the two countries. They said that there were no great expectations from a President who was set to demit office within a few months time. An Egyptian newspaper, Rose El-Youssef, which is close to the ruling National Democratic Party, ran a headline: The Crow of Peace: Bush. The very fact that the Egyptian government allowed Opposition activists to protest against the Bush visit is an indication of the tensions that have surfaced in the relations between the two countries.

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