|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
25 April - 1 May 2002
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Linkages in the balanceMany questions have been raised about the US administration's strategy in the Middle East. Former Ambassador to Egypt Robert Pelletreau, on a visit to Cairo, spoke to Soha Abdelaty of the view from Washington
When the Bush administration took office in Washington, it made a point of telling its allies in the Middle East that it would adopt a 'hands-off approach' to the Arab-Israeli conflict. While not being directly involved as much as former US President Bill Clinton was, George Bush has gradually become more engaged as the situation continued to deteriorate. The approach he eventually adopted, however, has raised controversy in the Arab world.
photo: Mohamed Lutfi
"I think there's been a debate in the US government about what is the course to follow that protects US interests. And this is partially what accounts for the delay," Robert Pelletreau, former Ambassador to Egypt told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Also, the United States has frankly been focusing on other things. It has been focusing on the campaign against terror; it has been focusing on domestic issues; our economy is still in trouble and we have mid-term elections and already there is a lot of focus on that. I think that reluctance was partially responsible for the deterioration that has taken place," he added, listing the steps that the administration has taken by appointing a special Middle East envoy and then, after President Hosni Mubarak's last visit, sponsoring a UN resolution calling for a Palestinian state for the first time in a Security Council resolution. Finally, there has been US Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission.
Many analysts have drawn a link between that mission and the US's 'war against terror,' claiming that the US is trying to garner support from the Arab leaders for a possible attack against Iraq, in return for the resolution of the Palestinian conflict. Pelletreau agreed that there was a link between the two scenarios. "It is very difficult for Arab governments to support the United States in the campaign against terrorism when public opinion is entirely preoccupied with an unacceptable situation closer to home. So that is the linkage," he said. "I call it a back-end linkage that is part of the reality that the United States has to deal with," he added.
And yet, the US involvement has failed to bear fruit. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ignored Bush's call for an immediate withdrawal from recently occupied territories. Pelletreau, however, sees that Sharon can never snub Bush for long. "Israel we have seen in the past historically sometimes can resist for a little while, but Israel does not want to make itself the enemy of the international community. It doesn't want to make itself the enemy of the United States; it knows it can't do that. It cannot really survive alone," he said.
On the other hand, when Powell's mission failed to secure an "immediate" Israeli withdrawal, many observers said that the goal of his mission was to persuade Arab governments to pressure Palestinian President Yasser Arafat into accepting an Israeli-dictated cease-fire. "I don't think that's quite accurate. I think he was asking these Arab governments to be a part of an international effort," Pelletreau countered. "I think it's very important that it includes Egypt and Jordan who have each of them the capacity to speak to Israel as well as have influence with the Palestinians."
Pelletreau said that there were several positive elements in this mission. "I was very pleased to hear Secretary Powell say when he was here that there needs to be a political dimension, a political element to this solution. That is one of the things that was missing before," he said. "The other aspect of his mission that I find encouraging is that the United States is not trying to do it alone. He has gotten the support of the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and Arab leaders who are interested in supporting peace... This is the right kind of international context to put pressure on both sides to break this cycle of violence and move into a more productive framework," Pelletreau added.
He is, however, sceptical about the current administration's long-term vision of the peace process. "I am not sure that this current administration will remain committed to this whole process. I think it understands it needs a political dimension, and it has spoken of the political vision of a Palestinian state. These are good things. You work with visions, but to turn visions into a real political process requires a lot," he said. To begin with, it has to go beyond the Mitchell and Tenet plans, he suggested. "They may have useful elements in them still to be drawn on. But to go beyond this, you have to have, and I am talking about quite a long-term effort, something like a second post-Madrid effort, that would take quite a long period because I would see it operating on two political levels," Pelletreau said. "The first political level we have already talked about -- creating this international framework in support of peace, bringing about a cease-fire and the resumption of a negotiations process. But the second level is just as important. And the second level is a level that I think the first Madrid conference missed, and that is conditioning the Palestinian and Israeli societies to coexist."
Unprecedented demonstrations in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world are putting pressure on their governments to take more action, and to stop waiting for the US role to bring about peace. "I can understand why public opinion rises and why there are demonstrations. I understand that this puts the Egyptian government in a difficult position because governments want to be responsive to the aspirations of their people and they need to be responsive to public pressures," Pelletreau said. "At the same time, the government knows that in the long run a complete severing of ties with Israel is a big step backwards. And also the government knows it can be more influential with the United States as a friend and supporter of peace than it can if it starts taking a position that looks like it's not a supporter of peace," he added.
The former ambassador to Cairo, however, thinks that Egypt has balanced both sides of the coin quite well so far. "President Mubarak has used his position of trust and confidence among American leaders to send some very tough messages to Washington. And I know they have been read and they have had a strong influence. At the same time, Egypt is responding to this public pressure by reducing its ties further with Israel without breaking completely a channel of communications, which is valuable to maintain," he said. "Egypt's peace treaty with Israel is still the cornerstone of a broader peace in the region and if that were to break, we'd be heading towards more difficult times. We've seen the same pressures coming up in another Arab countries. But other Arab countries don't quite have the same leadership position or the same international visibility that Egypt has," he concluded.
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