Meagre expectations met
In Sharm El-Sheikh, Dina Ezzat
watches a sombre finale to the Middle East sojourn of George Bush
"Let us shake hands, Mr President," a slightly uptight George W Bush told his poised host President Hosni Mubarak. Meeting for the first time since 2004, the brief handshake for the cameras seemed emblematic of cool relations between the two leaders.
The nine-day Middle East tour that saw the US president gleefully greeted last Wednesday at the Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport followed by moments of covert tension in the occupied Palestinian territories and bombastic receptions in several Gulf states ended on a rather fact-of-matter note in Sharm El-Sheikh. A cautious President Mubarak reminded his guest that Washington needed to do more to bring about a Palestinian- Israeli peaceful settlement.
"During our consultations, I underlined Egypt's supporting stances to the cause of [Middle East] peace and my expectation to see President Bush continue with his follow-up of negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides; hoping that a peace agreement could be reached before the end of his term in office," Mubarak said in a brief statement addressed to the press. Speaking with Bush standing next to him, the Egyptian president also called on his American counterpart to apply caution in handling the standoff between Tehran and the West and to accord adequate attention to the "mutual interests" that Egypt and the US share in their "decades-long strategic relationship".
Egyptian and American official sources say that the 45- minute Bush-Mubarak meeting was not intended to be a press event.
Sources were careful not to play on Cairo's disappointment over a recent US Congress decision to freeze $100 million of an annual $1.3 billion in aid that the US provides Egypt. "This visit was not tailored to address differences. It is too late for that since this [US] president is leaving in a few months," commented one Egyptian diplomat. He added that the Bush "stop- over" in Egypt was strictly an opportunity for the two leaders to meet and review regional events, "with no great expectations, at least on our side".
In his press statement in Sharm El-Sheikh yesterday, Bush tactfully said that Egypt would continue to be a strategic partner of the US, but said little else. Egyptian officials, speaking on background, were sceptical of the ability of President Bush to use the remainder of his term in office to foster better bilateral relations. They were also sceptical of the chances of Bush to conclude even as much as the outlines of a final peace deal between the Palestinians and Israelis, despite the "genuine energy" they say he directs towards the Palestinian-Israeli file.
According to one diplomat, "the entire process is not particularly encouraging. The references are not clear or specified, since the UN and Madrid references are now fudged in favour of vague Annapolis terms of reference." He added, "what Bush offered during this visit, especially with the statements he made in Israel and [the Palestinian territories] indicate much, even unprecedented, bias towards the Israeli version for a settlement. It would be hard to see how this bias could yield a deal to which any Palestinian leader could sing or sell to his people."
Judging by press statements, Bush made no real demands on the Israeli government to stop its settlement activities. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who joined the US president in the region and who is planning regular return trips during the coming few months, said the parties should not get "hung up on settlement activity" and move forward on negotiations.
Nor did the US president demand a halt to Israeli military operations in the Palestinian territories that take a serious humanitarian toll on civilians. The brutal Israeli onslaught in Gaza on Tuesday that left 19 dead, along with covert and overt threats made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to launch a wide military offensive on the Strip, indicate that the Bush visit has emboldened Israel and that more bloodshed will follow. "The crime [in Gaza on Tuesday] is the ugly fruit of Bush's visit to the region," said Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's exiled political leader.
Moreover, Bush pressed upon the Palestinians to accept that there will be no deal that will grant them even the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 War, and that there will be no right of return for Palestinian refugees. He also shrugged the rights and fate of the close to two million 1948 Arabs in Israel by insisting on the Jewish character of Israel. "Such statements constitute a political crime," said Nabil Shaath, senior adviser to the Palestinian president.
Beyond this, Arab officials are tight-lipped. "As far as we are concerned the outcome of the Bush visit [will] be measured by the kind of changes it will have on the ground," commented Hesham Youssef, chief of cabinet of the Arab League's secretary-general. He added, "if we see an end to the [illegal Israeli] settlement activities and an effort to facilitate final status talks then we would say we got something."
Meanwhile, there is an unmistakable concern over the harsh tone that Bush used in attacking Iran. "The statements of President Bush reflect the views of the US on Iran. As for the Arab views on this file, they are clearly reflected in Arab League resolutions and those of the Gulf Cooperation Council," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Tuesday. These resolutions call for peaceful management of the standoff and underline Arab-Persian common interests.
On internal political issues in the Arab world, the visiting US president, who once declared democratisation of the Arab world as a do-or-die mission, had but few remarks to offer beyond confirming his understanding that social, political and economic reforms "take time".
Bush announced he would return to the Middle East in May. The trip is designated to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel. For Palestinians and Arabs, six decades of the Nakba (dispossession) is nothing to celebrate. (see pp. 3,5,6,9,10,11)