CAIRO - Last month, U.S. President George W. Bush called for an international summit aimed at reaching a final settlement of the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But while most Arab capitals welcomed the proposal, unofficial reactions to Bush's newfound zeal to revive the Middle East "peace process" have been less sanguine.
"This is a last-minute attempt by the U.S. President to prove that he cares about the Palestinian issue," Mohamed Abu al-Hadid, political analyst and chairman of the state-owned print-house Dar al-Tahrir (which publishes official daily al-Gomhouriya), told IPS. "He sat for seven years in the presidency without making any serious effort until now to restart negotiations."On Jul. 16, Bush announced a new U.S. initiative aimed at restarting "serious negotiations towards the creation of a Palestinian state." The initiative's central plank, the U.S. President explained, would be a major international peace conference before the end of the year.
Bush went on to announce that the summit would include participants from Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and their neighbours in the region. In a clear reference to Palestinian resistance faction Hamas, Bush stated the event would be restricted to representatives of nations "that support a two-state solution, reject violence, recognise Israel's right to exist and commit to all previous agreements between the parties."
Hamas, which considers Israel an occupying power, has steadfastly refused to recognise the Jewish state. Dubbed an "extremist organisation" by Washington and Tel Aviv, the Islamist group -- which seized control of the Gaza Strip in mid-June -- has also refused U.S. and Israeli demands to divest itself of weapons in the absence of reciprocal concessions.
Bush, noting the Arab states' "pivotal role" in restarting peace talks, did not miss the opportunity to reiterate Washington's support for PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his U.S.-backed government in the West Bank. Arab states "should show strong support for President Abbas' government and reject the violent extremism of Hamas," Bush declared.
Bush added that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would oversee the conference, which is expected to be held in October or November. According to the U.S. President, Rice, along with her counterparts in the region, would "provide diplomatic support for the parties in their bilateral discussions and negotiations" with the aim of "moving forward on a successful path to a Palestinian state."
During a recent tour of the region, Rice discussed Bush's proposal with foreign ministers from Egypt, Jordan and the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, dubbed the "6+2" configuration of Arab "moderate" states.
At a Jul. 31 press conference in Sharm al-Sheikh with Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, Rice stated that the summit's objective was "to advance the progress of the two parties (Israel and the PA) towards a two-state solution." Pointing to the "active bilateral track" between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas, Rice stated her intention "to stimulate further progress on that track."
In an effort to shore up Arab support for the summit, Rice -- accompanied by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates for the first part of her tour -- went on to visit Jerusalem, Ramallah and Riyadh. While in Jerusalem, she urged both sides of the conflict to "seize the opportunity" to restart peace talks.
At a Jul. 30 meeting at the Cairo-based Arab League, most Arab foreign ministers welcomed the proposal. They qualified their support, however, by saying that the conference should involve all concerned parties, including Syria.
Damascus, for its part, rejected the proposed summit in light of the current political fissure between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement. According to an editorial in the Jul. 31 edition of independent Syrian daily al-Watan, holding such a conference in the absence of inter-Palestinian reconciliation would signal the "end of the Palestinian cause."
While supporting the summit in theory, Egypt, too, has expressed reservations about holding Middle East peace talks in the absence of an Arab consensus. On Aug. 25, President Hosni Mubarak -- noting that Syrian participation at the summit had yet to be confirmed -- pointed to "the need for consensus on all outstanding issues...before the meeting is held."
Mohamed Basyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the Shura Council (upper parliamentary house) committee for Arab affairs, also pointed to a lack of clarity regarding the summit's framework.
"The summit needs serious preparation to succeed," Basyouni told IPS. "A specific agenda must be set, we must know exactly who will attend, and a general consensus on the shape of the proposed Palestinian state must be reached."
"Will Palestine end up being a tiny statelet, or will it be a country based on the 1967 borders?" Basyouni asked. "And when will agreements be implemented?"
Emad Gad, analyst at the semi-official al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and expert on Israeli affairs, attributed Bush's proposal to "Washington's need to score a success in the Middle East, given the major crises it's facing with Iran and in Iraq."
Nevertheless, he voiced guarded optimism as to the summit's prospects for reaching a successful outcome.
"The current international circumstances could pressure the Palestinians into agreeing to a final settlement," Gad told IPS. "In hopes of ending the siege of Gaza and the fighting between Fatah and Hamas, Abbas might end up accepting the offer that (former Palestinian Authority president Yasser) Arafat turned down in 2000."
But other local commentators, pointing to numerous U.S. attempts in the past to resolve the perennial conflict, take a more jaundiced view.
"The summit represents another surprise pulled out of the American hat," prominent journalist Fahmi Howeidy wrote in the Aug. 7 edition of state daily al-Ahram. "The same hat from which came previous U.S.-sponsored initiatives, such as the Mitchell Report (2000), the Tenet Plan (2001), the General Zinni recommendations (2001), the Road Map (2002) and the Sharm al-Sheikh understandings (2005)."
"In all these cases, Israel ended up benefiting," he added, "while the Palestinian side was forced to make one concession after another."
According to Abu al-Hadid, Bush's proposed summit will most likely share the fate of earlier U.S. peace initiatives. "The conference will probably end in failure, just like (former U.S. president Bill] Clinton's last-minute attempts in 2000 to reach a settlement between Arafat and (former Israeli prime minister Ehud) Barak."
Other local commentators say that Washington is pushing for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to secure Arab backing for a possible U.S.-led war against Iran.
"The proposed peace summit is only meant to provide the U.S. with the political cover it needs to attack Iran," Ibrahim Eissa, political analyst and editor-in-chief of independent daily al-Dustour told IPS.
According to Howeidy, Washington made many of the same high-flying promises 16 years ago -- just before launching its first war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991.
"They used the very same expressions that U.S. officials are repeating now -- like 'seizing the opportunity for peace' -- in order to dose the region with sedatives enough to allow it to launch its first war on Iraq," he wrote. In that case, too, he noted, "Israel emerged the biggest victor after the total destruction of Iraq's military capacity."
"I'm not surprised by Rice's efforts to sell the idea," Howeidy added. "I'm surprised by the fact that the Arabs are buying it." (END/2007)
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