Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 January 2008
Issue No. 880
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Green light for atrocities

Just weeks after the Annapolis parade, Bush on tour to Israel has given carte blanche to Olmert for whatever level of violence against Palestinians he pleases, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Meagre expectations met

Unwelcome visit

The uncomfortable tourist

Although the leader of the rightist opposition in Israel, Benyamin Netanyahu, is known for his coldness and disinclination towards praising others, he departed from character when he gave his impression of his meeting with US President George W Bush at dawn last Thursday in Jerusalem. He expressed surprise over Bush's insistence on putting an end to the "threat" represented by the Iranian nuclear programme -- that Israeli strategists say threatens Israel in particular -- as well as Bush's insistence that Israel must strike the Palestinian resistance and "break its back". "I came out of that meeting more reassured towards Bush's determination to end the Iranian threat, and comfortable with his pledge to provide a cover for any military activity Israel might undertake in Gaza. If matters were left to this president, he would not allow any Palestinian terrorist to remain alive," he told Hebrew- language Israeli radio Thursday morning.

Following meetings between Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the two announced harmonious positions on Iran's nuclear programme. Yediot Aharonot, the most widely circulated Israeli newspaper, revealed that Bush agreed during his meeting with Olmert to coordinate with Israel in directing a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. All Israeli officials who met with Bush stated that he indisputably affirmed that there is no importance to a report issued recently by American domestic intelligence and stating that Iran halted development of its nuclear programme for military purposes in 2003.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's deputy defence minister and officially charged with facing strategic threats, considered the content of Bush's speech given in the United Arab Emirates Sunday and directed at the Iranian people as evidence that the American administration has "completely adopted the Israeli conception" of confronting the "Iranian threat and other sources of threat in the region, led by Hizbullah and Hamas." With regard to American authorisation for Israel to do as it sees fit with regard to striking the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, this was considered by Israel the most important achievement of Bush's visit.

Hebrew-language Israeli television noted that Olmert was surprised by the hasty agreement of Bush to Israel waging a wide-scale military campaign against the Gaza Strip though he was informed that it would affect hundreds and even thousands of Palestinian civilians. Those close to Olmert say they breathed a sigh of relief when it became clear that there was no longer any need for the heads of Israeli security and intelligence agencies to explain to Bush the reasons behind waging a wide-scale campaign against Gaza. While Bush asked Olmert to exert efforts to avoid affecting civilians, he departed having placed in Olmert's hands permission to do whatever he pleases, with all that means with regard to providing American diplomatic cover when Israel puts its plan into execution phase.

Following the granting of American permission to Israel to wage a campaign against the Strip, the Israeli army made some adjustments to its campaign plan. Israeli officials affirmed that Olmert approved the waging of this campaign not only to put an end to security threats that Israel claims come from the Gaza Strip, but also to meet a strategic-political goal of collapsing Gaza's Hamas government. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon affirmed that Israel had informed Bush that the military campaign against Gaza would not only aim to end the firing of rockets on Israeli settlements, but also end smuggling operations between the Gaza Strip and Egypt as well as bringing down Hamas. Were Hamas to fall, say Israeli officials, the Strip would have to be handed over to Palestinian President Abbas, though Abbas has stated his refusal to settle the conflict with Hamas through military means or via foreign parties.

Some in the Palestinian arena have begun to accuse Abbas, his security agencies and Fatah leaders of cooperating with Israel in preparation for the waging of an Israeli military campaign against Gaza. Ismail Al-Ashqar, head of the Interior and Security Committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council, has drawn attention to the fact that following Bush's visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, the number of bombings undertaken by Fatah that target the police of Ismail Haniyeh's government has increased. "It is absolutely clear that these bombings aim to reinstate the appearance of chaos and lack of security with the goal of creating circumstances allowing for a major Israeli action in the Gaza Strip," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Unfortunately, Abbas wants to return to Gaza, even if on the back of an Israeli tank."

Ehab Al-Ghasin, spokesperson of the Ministry of the Interior in Ismail Haniyeh's government, says that there are numerous indicators suggesting that Fatah groups have received orders to intensify their attempts at undercutting stability in the Strip. "The confessions of group members arrested recently show that there were clear instructions made to intensify operations seeking to destroy security," he told the Weekly.

Yet most commentators in Israel hold that waging a major military campaign against the Strip does not depend on the positions of Bush and Abbas, but rather on Israeli considerations. Eitan Haber, director of the office of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, says there is no guarantee that the campaign against the Strip will lead to ending the firing of Qassam rockets. On the contrary, it will lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, which will make Israel solely responsible under international humanitarian law for providing humanitarian services to Palestinians there; this in addition to the hefty price Israel will pay in any war, as confirmed by even optimistic estimations of the Israeli army.

Yet there is no dispute among observers in the Palestinian arena that President Bush's visit weakened the Palestinian negotiating position with Israel. Olmert announced more than once in the presence of Bush, and following the latter's departure from Tel Aviv, that the American administration accepts Israel's position calling for Abbas and Salam Fayyad's government to implement its obligations according to the roadmap before any agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Olmert also reported Bush as placing a crippling stipulation that makes progress in negotiations impossible. He informed his ministers at the beginning of the Israeli government meeting Sunday that Bush had told him that the Palestinian Authority must carry out its obligations under the roadmap in the Gaza Strip as well, even though the Strip is entirely under the control of Hamas.

There is no disputing that the Palestinian leadership was sorely disappointed by its bet that Bush's visit would end the dispute between it and Olmert's government regarding the construction of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Within sight and earshot of Bush, Olmert stressed that Israel would continue construction of major settlement conglomerations in the West Bank and in Jerusalem and its surrounds. Bush, meanwhile, called for removal of "settlement points" that settlers have constructed without permission from the Israeli government.

Yet Palestinian writer and researcher Nehad Al-Sheikh Khalil holds that the most dangerous outcome of Bush's visit lies in Israel's attempt to firmly establish the apartheid it has constructed in the heart of the West Bank as a borderline between it and the West Bank. It has done so through stressing that it is not prepared to seek a solution to the future of settlements within the wall, which total 85 per cent of the settlements in the West Bank. "The weakness of the official Palestinian position and American agreement with nearly everything Israel requests have whetted Olmert's appetite and desire to impose his positions on Palestinian negotiators," Khalil told the Weekly.

Saeb Erekat, director of the negotiations department in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, was extremely embarrassed when Palestinian journalists insisted on asking him to comment on Bush's statements in the press conference held with Abbas following the end of their meeting in Ramallah. In this meeting, he had clearly understood that Bush's administration does not consider UN resolutions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a reference point governing negotiations. Moreover, Bush stressed that his administration does not intend to place any pressure on Israel.

Even from a humanitarian perspective, Bush disappointed the Palestinian leadership when he granted legitimacy to the continuation of military checkpoints spread throughout the West Bank and which turn the lives of Palestinians there into an unbearable hell. Bush said that these checkpoints are set up to guarantee that terrorist operations are not carried out in Tel Aviv, and as such has adopted the position of the most extremist ministers in Olmert's government, as even a number of Olmert's ministers have held that many of these checkpoints should be removed.

Yet even in Israel there are many who consider Bush the most important guarantee for Israel continuing its aggression against the Palestinian people and refusing to commit to the demands of a settlement. On 7 January, the Israeli intellectual Gideon Levy wrote an article in Haaretz in which he stated that, "there has never been anyone in the White House who granted Israel permission to enact aggression as Bush, who encouraged Israel to wage campaigns of violence and urged it to firmly establish the reality of the occupation." Levy added that, "Bush is the president who granted legitimacy to every criminal act, from the expansion of settlements to even ignoring signed agreements, including those that Israel reached with the Palestinian Authority under the sponsorship of the United States, and who participated in firmly establishing the occupation and making it crueler."

As for Ben Kasbit, top commentator for Maariv newspaper, the second most circulated in Israel, he wrote an article on 10 January saying that Bush has caused harm to the entire Middle East and has placed the world in danger. He added, "it's been a long time since the United States has had such a failure of a president as Bush, who has caused such harm to the interests and values of the Western world." He concluded his article by writing, "what is most dangerous about Bush is that until now he has not understood the extent of the stupidity in the steps that he takes."

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