Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 April 2004
Issue No. 687
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Open letter to President Bush

By Osama El-Ghazali Harb*

George W Bush, President of the United States of America,

I write this letter as an Egyptian Arab and a Muslim, in reaction to the statements you made at a news conference at the White House on 14 April and to the letter you addressed to Sharon conveying the same ideas.

I would like, first of all, to explain the political background from which I come. I am from that section of the Egyptian and Arab public that believes in liberal democracy and accepts peace with Israel, a peace involving the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, an outcome the international community agreed upon over 50 years ago. I am among those who believe their problem with the United States revolves around US policies in the region. We have no quarrel with the US as a nation, as an advanced, indeed impressive, civilisation. In brief, I belong to that moderate current that looks forward to peace and to good relations with the US.

As such I was stunned by your recent action regarding the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. I am unable to see how the ideas you came up with can possibly promote US interests in the region.

You have agreed, Mr President, that Israel, in presumed future peace arrangements, would annex parts of the West Bank that contain Israeli settlements. You have denied the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes from which they have been expelled, saying refugees will be allowed only to settle in a future Palestinian state. You have ruled out the possibility of Israel returning to the 1949 armistice lines or 4 June 1967 borders.

This marks a sudden turn in the US position, a major change in the principles governing this conflict. Your position is now embedded in a document that future administrations will be unable to abrogate or ignore.

You, along with the whole world, know that this move has placed the US, once again, in a position of breach of international legitimacy and UN resolutions. It defies the wishes of the great majority of the international community. This is as true for the illegitimate Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as it is for the refugees' right of return and Israel's obligation to withdraw to the 1949 or 1967 borders.

The position you have taken has done irreparable damage to the credibility of the US as a mediator with any measure of fairness, objectivity or impartiality in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is not just my opinion, Mr President, but one shared by The New York Times, which on 15 April said your action dealt a "costly blow to the US credibility as a sincere mediator in the Middle East peace," and The Washington Post, which wrote that your actions "will make it harder for the US to play the role of mediator in the peace talks".

So why have you taken such a position? A common argument, one that your ambassador in Cairo presented to me, is that this move was important to break the current stalemate in the Palestinian- Israeli peace process and encourage the Israeli prime minister to press on with withdrawal from Gaza and the roadmap. Another argument is that the concessions you made to Israel would inevitably take place in the course of the Palestinian- Israeli talks, and that some of the settlement proposals already hinted as much.

None of these arguments is tenable. You have presented the Israeli prime minister with valuable gifts, in advance and without any guarantee of reciprocation. Who is to guarantee to us, and you, that Sharon is going to honour his promises to you? The Israeli prime minister is known for procrastination and deceit in anything related to the essence of a Palestinian state. You must also be aware that Sharon's political future -- like yours -- is uncertain, and that he still faces criminal charges at home. And by second guessing the negotiators you have imposed in advance Israel's wishes on the Palestinians.

Whether the move was an attempt to win the Jewish vote in the coming elections is a peculiarity of US domestic policy on which I don't wish to comment. But I have to tell you, Mr President, that your move has other implications (some Arab commentators have termed it a second Balfour Declaration), ones that are far reaching, going beyond the perimeter of Palestinian-Israeli peace to impact on US strategy and goals in the region, including the situation in Iraq, the fight against terror and the promotion of democracy.

In essence what you have done, Mr President, is to move US policy to a position practically identical to that of Israel. You have submitted to Israeli right-wing extremists, whose utmost wish is to make Israel's confrontation with the Palestinians synonymous with the US confrontation with terror.

Such moves, Mr President, carry serious consequences for you and the region on three fronts:

Concerning the situation in Iraq, we hardly need to stress the fact that the US, following its invasion of Iraq, has become, in a sense, a Middle Eastern country. You have 130,000 troops in Iraq. As long as you maintain a presence in Iraq you are neighbour to Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Your plan for rebuilding the Iraqi state is still in its infancy and you know that there are difficulties involved. There are dozens of forces in Iraq that disapprove of your presence and reject occupation, from patriots jealous of their country's independence to the disgruntled remnants of the old regime. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of regional affairs would be aware of the profound emotive bond felt by the inhabitants of this region, indeed of the entire Islamic world, with the plight of the Palestinians.

What you have done, Mr President, is undermine US credibility in Iraq. You have directed the anger of many who live in Iraq, the outrage they reserve for distant Israel, to US troops in Iraq. The latter will pay the price of your support for Israel, the price of the foolishness of Israel's leaders. You must have seen, Mr President, the spectacle of Falluja's inhabitants celebrating the death of four US civilians with pictures of Sheikh Yassin, a man assassinated by Israel a few days earlier. Did it ring any alarm bells when the first thing Sharon does -- after receiving your blessing -- is to order the assassination of Dr Al-Rantisi.

You have said, Mr President, that confronting terror is your administration's top priority. This makes perfect sense. Because the 11 September attacks were carried out by extreme Islamist militants, your country must not only fight the forces of extremism and terror but also dry up the wells of terror. You often speak about conditions spawning terror in Arab and Islamic countries, citing poverty, tyranny, and isolationist thinking, etc., all true. But you ignore one cause for terror that is no less important than the above. You ignore the feelings of despair and frustration shared by millions of young Arabs and Muslims as they see Israel repress and humiliate the Palestinians (even if we were to admit the grievous errors committed by Palestinian leaders and the opportunities that have been missed). Repression and injustice drive hundreds of young people to commit suicide, to sacrifice their lives in the only way they see that it is possible to confront their oppressors. You have succeeded, Mr President, in a few words, to pave the ground for many more "terrorists" to emerge, the very people you hope your policy is going to defeat.

How do you imagine, Mr President, that your unmasked bias to the most extremist forces in Israel will help democracy in the Middle East and the Arab world? Don't your advisors ever tell you that your blind partiality to Israel makes your call for domestic "reform" suspect in the eyes of many Arabs? And how can the cause of reform and democracy in Arab and Islamic world benefit from a US policy that fans the flames of fanaticism?

It is now up to you -- and your successor -- to alleviate and diminish the negative, even catastrophic, impact of this change on US interests and people.

* The writer is a member of the Shura Council and editor-in-chief of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawlia (International Politics) quarterly journal, issued by Al-Ahram.

International Response to the Bush Declaration on the Palestinian Right to Return

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