Update-16 April 2004, 16:50 GMT
Balfour to Bush
President Bush sent a shocking message to his counterparts in the Arab world by supporting Sharon's disengagement plan and dropping the Palestinian right of return, writes Amira Howeidy
A few hours separated US president George W.Bush's meeting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at his Texas ranch and the joint press conference the American president held with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in Washington on Wednesday. The American and Egyptian presidents had seemed in agreement that any Israeli proposal to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian Gaza strip should be part of the US brokered- Roadmap, which postpones the thorny issues of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the borders of a viable Palestinian state to final status negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis. It also envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 on the basis of the June 1967 borders and “on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace and UN security resolutions 242, 338 and 1397.”
But the same president who devised the Roadmap less than two years ago together with the United Nations, European Union and Russia, better known as the “Quartet mediators”, reversed his position on Wednesday following his meeting with Sharon. Bush stunned his Egyptian visitor and the Arab world by declaring his support and backing of the Israeli premier's controversial disengagement plan, describing it as “historic and courageous.”
The "disengagement" plan envisages Israel removing all settlements on the Gaza Strip but holding onto six settlement blocs in the West Bank. Some 92,500 Israelis live in the six settlements - out of a total of 240,000 in the West Bank, or 400,000 if east Jerusalem is included. Israel's annexation of these settlements would reduce the West Bank to three or four disconnected and badly truncated Bantustans, effectively thwarting hopes for a future Palestinian state that includes the Gaza Strip and the entire West Bank.
But President Bush does not seem to mind.
“Realities on the ground and in the region have changed greatly” and should be reflected in any final peace deal, he said.
Both at their joint press conference and in a letter of American pledges to the Israeli prime minister, Bush rewrote official American foreign policy towards the Palestinian question, effectively jettisoning all relevant UN resolutions on the issue, prejudging the final status talks between the two parties and adopting, almost to the letter, Sharon's extreme right-wing “vision” of a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Throughout the Arab world, Bush's “promises” were instantly perceived as a new Balfour Declaration, the 1917 letter by then British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, pledging the British government's commitment to establishing “a national home for the Jews” in Palestine. Balfour's letter, just like Bush's, was in flagrant violation of firm promises made by the British government to the Arabs at the time.
Thus, for instance, on the issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees (a final status issue, according to both the Oslo Accords and the Roadmap), the American president said Palestinian refugees who wanted to return should be accommodated in a future Palestinian state. The solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, he said, "will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there - rather than Israel".
Millions Palestinian refugees were driven out of their homes in the 1948 and 1967 wars and constitute today's 4.5 million-strong Palestinian Diaspora, most of whom are living in destitution in refugee camps in bordering Arab states, particularly Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The rest have settled across the Arab world, the US and Europe.
By adopting this new position, Bush has altered decades of American policy.
Neither did the US president specify whether these “new realities” include the new borders Israel has created by its construction of the infamous Separation Wall, which cuts deep into the West Bank, isolating Palestinian communities into cantons, enclaves and "military zones." Upon its completion, the Wall is expected to be approximately 730km long. Some 90 per cent of its course deviates from Israel's 1967 borders, unilaterally redrawing and expanding those borders. The Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including almost 1.5 million refugees, will be literally caged on a mere 12 per cent of historic Palestine.
Bush's statements and letter of guarantees to Sharon came as a huge shock and, almost certainly, embarrassment, to his Egyptian counterpart, who was still in the United States fulfilling further engagements on the agenda of his US visit. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle on Thursday, Mubarak said he was “shocked” by Bush's endorsement of Sharon's plan. "This issue should be discussed between both (Israeli and Palestinian) sides and accepted by both," Mubarak said, adding that the pro-Israel shift raises questions about the United States' ability to serve as a neutral broker in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"Now we don't know what is going to happen," Mubarak said. "I'm afraid there is going to be more escalation of tension, much more violence." Mubarak laid some of the blame for the American president's decision on his effort to win re-election in November. "It's an election year," Mubarak said, lamenting that peace efforts "will wait until the election is concluded."
While the Palestinian Authority condemned the American position, declaring it “biased” and in contradiction of the US's role as an honest broker in the peace process, leaders of the Islamist movement found in Bush's statements an occasion to expose the “futility” of all peace agreements.
US support of Sharon's plan “only proves that armed resistance is the only option for the Palestinians,” Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal said yesterday, who argued that it was high time for the Palestinian Authority and Arab regimes to put to rest “illusions” that a Palestinian-Israeli political settlement could be reached under the auspices of the US. “Hamas will fight to regain all the Palestinian rights; their rights to land and sacred cites, including Jerusalem, and the right of return. There is no change in our policies,” he stated. While Jihad leader Mohamed Al-Hindi viewed Bush's statements as a “mercy bullet for the Roadmap.”
Meanwhile UN Secretary General Kofi Annan advised against unilateral statements. "The secretary general reiterates his position that final status issues should be determined in negotiations between the parties based on relevant Security Council resolutions," a spokesman for Annan said in a statement. "He strongly believes that they should refrain from taking any steps that would pre-empt the outcome of such talks."
US Secretary of State Colin Powell defended his administration's position arguing that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza is good for the Palestinians. He said it was the beginning of a process and not the end of one, and insisted the understandings have not cost the United States its role as an "honest broker" in peace efforts.
In the Arab world, Powell's protestations rang hollow.