Nabil El-Boushy / Al-Jazeera – 2008-05-15 23:15:24
(May 15, 2008) — President Bush’s visit to the Middle East doesn’t raise high hopes for renewing peace efforts in a troubled region where the U.S. influence is dwindling.
After five years of violence in Iraq and almost a year of Palestinians’ suffering due to the international blockade following Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, the latest blow to the U.S. policy has come in Beirut, with Hezbollah’s challenge to the Western-backed government.
In fact, many analysts now believe that the U.S.-backed camp in the region is retreating, while the power of Syria and Iran is growing.
The dwindling influence of the U.S., and the rising power of its opponents are just two factors affecting any hopes for progress in the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians during Bush’s visit, which is mainly anchored around celebrations for the 60th anniversary of Israel’s creation, which the Palestinians call al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe.
(Watch video: Bush visits Israel)
According to the BBC, Bush and the first Lady will spend three days in Israel but will not visit the Palestinian territories. Bush had visited Ramallah during his first trip to the region in January, and is expected to meet the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas during the last stop of his current tour in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Celebrating Israel’s creation at this critical time is seen as inappropriate by many Arabs, most of whom have lost hope that the Palestinians would reach a peace deal with the Israelis this year, as promised earlier by the Bush administration.
Asked if President Bush would acknowledge al-Nakba during his visit, the U.S. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who is travelling with the president, said Israel was an important friend and ally.
Speaking to reporters on her way to Jerusalem earlier this month, Rice said: “Why would you not celebrate the 60th anniversary… of this once fragile state, founded on the horrors of one of the really most awful moments of modern human history, and that has grown into a vibrant economy and democracy?”
“Celebrating that does not mean that you don’t recognise that there were consequences for the people of the region and that we’re still trying to deal with those consequences,” she added.
Rice also said that the Palestinians didn’t raise concerns about President Bush’s visit to Israel.
But on Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the celebration was out of place.
In a speech Fayyad said was directed at Israel, he asked: “How can you celebrate while the Palestinian people are crying out in pain? How can you feel freedom when you seize the land and the liberty of another people?”
* Any progress?
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that progress was being made in talks with the Palestinians, but noted that hopes are thin for a deal before the end of the year.
Rice, who has been going to Jerusalem and Ramallah almost every month for the past two years, also said that an agreement within the next eight months “might be improbable but it’s not impossible”.
But many Palestinians are much less positive. A three-way summit with the Israelis and the Palestinians is not planned during Bush’s trip, a sign of the low expectations of any breakthrough during the visit.
“This did not seem the time for a big high-level three-way event with the president and the prime minister and President Abbas,” said National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley last week.
“It just doesn’t feel right as the best way to advance the negotiations,” he said.
* Too late?
Before leaving on his trip to the Middle East, President Bush told BBC Arabic television that he was still hopeful that an agreement could be reached that would define the borders of a future Palestinian state, and said “we’re going to work hard for that end”.
But nobody is talking about a comprehensive peace agreement any more.
Some analysts argue that the Bush administration is doing too little, too late in the Middle East. At the same time, Bush’s policy towards the Middle East over the past few years has been misguided – from the Iraq War to sidelining Hamas while backing President’s Abbas’ Fatah party.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the BBC that the current crisis in Lebanon was the “last flickering flame” of the Bush administration’s project to bring “democracy” to the region, stressing that the situation now is much worse off than it was two years ago.
* U.S.-Gulf relations
Mr Alterman also pointed to the changed relationship with the oil-producing Gulf states, who are increasingly looking to Asia as a growing and lucrative market.
“I think the Gulf countries are less willing to do hard things just because they help the U.S.,” he said.
“There’s a sense that the U.S. remains important, that it remains a country that they need to engage with, but the sense that the United States is a country that they will take a bullet for, I don’t think that sentiment is there,” he added.
Commenting on Bush’s visit to Saudi Arabia later this week to mark 75 years of U.S.-Saudi ties, Mr Alterman said: “I don’t think that Saudi Arabia is there [for the U.S. the way it used to] and I have a hard time imagining, given what has happened over the last decade, that the Saudis are going to be there for the U.S. in the same way ever again.”
Bush said he would discuss rising oil prices and subsequent effects on global economies with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. He is also expected to ask the Saudis to increase OPEC oil production to help lower prices, which have reached a high of $126 a barrel. But the American president was rebuffed the first time he made this request in January. It’s not known whether the Saudis will listen to him this time, but there’s certainly pressure on Riyadh to boost oil output.
Ahead of Bush’s trip, a group of Democratic Senators on Tuesday threatened to block a multi-million dollar U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia, unless the kingdom increases oil production and helps cut soaring gasoline prices.
“We are saying to the Saudis that, if you don’t help us, why should we be helping you?” New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said.
“We are saying that we need real relief, and we need it quickly. You need our arms, but we need you to co-operate and not strangle American consumers.”
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