PARIS -- The agreement reached between Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President George W. Bush at their Texas meeting was described by Bush administration figures as setting "a division of labor" in making Middle Eastern peace. That the early summer peace conference just announced in Washington will finish the job is most unlikely. A division of labor is meaningless without agreement on the objective.
The White House says Abdullah's peace proposal is "the only positive development that's taken place in the last year and something that the president is moving quickly to take advantage of." Acceptance of the plan ostensibly is what the two men are after.
The plan offers Arab recognition and full normalization with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the illegally occupied Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem, and recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state. If the White House really supports this offer, it is a huge change from what it was saying three weeks ago. Bush then was congratulating Ariel Sharon on his "war against terrorism" despite Sharon's defiance of his demands that Israel withdraw from Palestinian territory. Now the United States says it is committed to convincing Sharon, who arrives in Washington this week, that "the psychology of violence" has to be broken. Bush has his work cut out. Sharon's policy in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories has always been based on manipulation of the psychology of violence, in the interest of Israel's perceived national interests.
Sharon was an original sponsor of colonization of the Palestinian territories seized in the 1967 war. He makes no secret of his belief that Israel should further expand, and has in the last few days again stated his determination never to yield one single Israeli settlement to the Palestinians.
Abdullah has an equivalent problem. He will travel to the Arab capitals to organize a meeting of Arab leaders with Yasser Arafat, meant to convince the latter that a negotiated peace even now is possible, and that more terrorist violence serves no purpose. Yet the Abdullah plan, at least in its original form, requires Israel to give up all of the illegal settlements.
So what does the prince and the president's "division of labor" actually mean? No Sharon government is going to give up the colonies. No Arab government is going to accept the Abdullah plan unless some Israeli government does give them up.
Where does Bush now stand? According to The New York Times, Bush's father, Vice President Dick Cheney and other figures from the first Bush administration, all with interests in Saudi oil and Arab arms purchases, have told the younger Bush where American business and political interests really lie.
Has he been convinced? Sharon certainly doesn't think so. He goes to Washington confident that the Texas agreement and the summer conference offer interminable talks that he can stall or ignore.
He has electoral reasons for thinking that Bush is unlikely to have really changed policy. The president's father made trouble for Israel because American money was being spent on colonies constructed on what legally is Palestinian land, and his father was not re-elected.
Colony construction continues even now, despite the Oslo, Camp David and Wye Plantation agreements, all of which postulated eventual Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the disputed territories.
Those agreements neglected to forbid new seizures of Palestinian land and colony construction. Successive Israeli governments therefore went on doing what they had been doing, with the intention of creating "irreversible facts" on the ground.
There now are more than 400,000 Israelis living in fortified towns and settlements built in defiance of international law governing territories under military occupation. Finally, what does Abdullah think about what really will result from the Texas meeting? He cannot go to other Arab capitals only to be made to appear a fool. The United States cannot really afford that, either.
The younger Bush's recent and all but unconditional support for Sharon has rested in part on political calculation, and there is a new source of popular support for Israel. A large fraction of the Protestant fundamentalist electorate in the United States now supports Israel for religious reasons.
The Old Testament records God's promise that the Jewish people would return to Jerusalem. In the Protestant fundamentalist reading, Israel's existence today is fulfillment of that promise, so that American support for the Jewish state is a divine obligation.
An irony exists in this that seems unrecognized in an era of considerable religious ignorance among Israelis as well as among many American Jewish supporters of Israel. The American Protestant fundamentalist interpretation of the Scriptures sees the Jewish return to Jerusalem as initiating those Last Days foreseen in the Christian New Testament, which will culminate in the return, as the true Messiah, of the Christians' Jesus of Nazareth.
Copyright 2002 International Herald Tribune