Concessions of a dangerous mind
While Tony Blair may believe he has transformed President Bush's thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Ariel Sharon can remain confident that nothing has really changed, says Brian Whitaker
Monday March 17, 2003
It was a scene reminiscent of 1938 when the hapless British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned from Munich with a piece of paper signed by Herr Hitler.
Last Friday, having wrought what he imagined was an important concession from the most dangerous leader of his day, Tony Blair summoned the media to Downing Street to give them the good news.
Those privileged to hear it first were not just the normal Westminster press corps. Arab journalists were given pride of place at the press conference, and allowed to ask the first questions.
Unlike Chamberlain, Mr Blair did not actually have a signed piece of paper to wave, but he said President George Bush had agreed that the road map for Middle East peace would be "published as soon as the Palestinian prime minister [Abu Mazen] takes office".
The road map, which envisages the creation of a "viable and credible" Palestinian state by the year after next, is the only reward that Mr Blair has succeeded in extracting from the United States in return for his support on Iraq - support that may not only cost the prime minister his job but cause untold damage to British interests.
The road map - worked on over a period of months by the "Quartet" - the US, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations - has so far been treated as a discussion document (which the Israelis have taken every opportunity to amend). It has therefore not been published, though various drafts have been leaked. Mr Blair's statement that President Bush has at last agreed to publish it implies that the document has now reached something approaching its final form.
But either Mr Blair has been conned or he is clutching at any passing straw that could help to portray his disastrous Iraq policy as the product of some deeply-calculated strategy. Speaking from the White House rose garden a few minutes before Mr Blair spoke from Downing Street, Mr Bush noticeably did not use the word "publish".
He simply said the road map would be "given to the Palestinians and the Israelis". In other words, instead of pushing the plan forward to implementation, it will be left on the table for further discussion: "Once this road map is delivered, we will expect and welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document that will advance true peace," Mr Bush said. "We will urge them to discuss the road map with one another."
From what has leaked out so far, there is nothing in the road map's goals that anyone - apart from Hamas and Israeli extremists - could object to. The problem is that it creates endless opportunities for obstruction and procrastination. In particular, a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is contingent on wholesale Palestinian reform and the creation of a suitably secure regional environment for Israel - hence the alleged need to invade Iraq.
But whatever reforms the Palestinians undertake, we can be reasonably sure that Israel will demand more, while the American neo-conservatives will claim that the demolition of Iraq still leaves threats from Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and others to be dealt with.
It might not be so bad if the US and Britain were prepared to apply real pressure - of the kind applied against Iraq - in order to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But where are the ultimatums, the threats of military intervention to bring about peace?
The obvious, and most sensible approach all along has been to sort out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first, because that is what fuels terrorism and gives a veneer of credibility to dictators like Saddam Hussein. This was also Mr Blair's approach, until he got abducted by extra-terrestrials and re-programmed.
From Britain, Friday's little charade with the road map appeared to have been contrived purely to help Mr Blair by addressing the question of double standards in relation to Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The most important thing that we can do is to show even-handedness towards the Middle East," Mr Blair told the press conference. "We are right to focus on Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, but we must put equal focus on the plight of the people whose lives are being devastated by lack of progress in the Middle East peace process."
Possibly Mr Blair really believes there are no double standards at work here, but every time he talks about even-handedness he draws attention to the lack of it. Far from dropping their notebooks to cheer his remarks, the assembled journalists - in particular the specially-invited Arabs among them - were unimpressed.
"For Palestinians I think this comes too little too late ... before an unpopular and imminent war," the first questioner said. "Why should anyone read the situation any differently now that there is a commitment from the international community?"
"Why the road map?" asked another. "What happened to Prince Abdullah's peace initiative which was blessed by everybody?" And another: "Realistically how much attention and determination can you actually give to this process at a time like this when the next weeks and months are going to be dominated by Iraq?"
And another: "Surely you would expect a few people in the Middle East to be a little bit sceptical about the very timing of this initiative in relation to the Iraq issue."
Unlike Tony Blair, President Bush knows little about the Middle East and cares even less - which at least means Arabs know where they stand: fear the worst and they can't be far wrong.
Mr Blair, on the other hand, is intelligent, aware of Muslim sensibilities, and thinks he understands the region - but that is a mixed blessing. Last year, disregarding advice from officials, he blundered off on a tour of the Middle East that achieved nothing. His political style may work in Britain but it doesn't easily cross the cultural divide and he usually ends up irritating Arabs rather than persuading them.
Israel, meanwhile, is uneasy about the linkage of the Iraqi and Palestinian issues but willing to let it happen for the time being as a face-saver for Mr Blair and America's other ally, the Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar.
Writing in Ha'aretz, the liberal Israeli daily this morning, the paper's diplomatic expert, Aluf Benn explained: "The more public opinion in their countries opposes the war in Iraq, the more Blair and Aznar grasp the Palestinian issue as a political life saver ... They have to prove to their constituents in Europe that they care about ending the Israeli occupation of the territories, to win legitimacy for their occupation of Iraq."
But while President Bush was publicly delivering the road map as a sop to his European allies, he was privately telling a different story to the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. According to Ha'aretz: "The White House hurried to console Israel and was helped by the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, which will always avoid any show of confrontation with Washington and prefers to emphasise the coordination and agreement.
"Sharon's aides, who visited the US last week, came back convinced that it will be a long time before the political [peace] process is renewed."
The paper continued: "National security adviser Condoleezza Rice called in Jewish leaders to her office on Friday and told them they had nothing to worry about. We won't do anything to hurt Israel and won't act without consultations and agreement with it, she said.
'The president's statement was meant to strengthen Abu Mazen and help him win powers. We will lead the process and not the Europeans. We know you are worried about the Quartet, but we're in the driver's seat,' she emphasised."
Clearly, the White House is lying to somebody. And it's a fair bet that the person being lied to is not Ariel Sharon but the ever-gullible Mr Blair.