President George W. Bush shakes hands with Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority Thursday, May 26, 2005, as the press records the moment in the Oval Office of the White House. (Photo: White House)
Mahmoud Abbas has just completed a “successful” visit to Washington. He expressed great satisfaction with the results, and comparing what he had expected to what he had achieved, he must be right. But what benefits the visit did bring the Palestinians is a different matter: simply nothing.
The visit as such was very important. Chairman Yasser Arafat spent the last years of his life besieged in his dilapidated headquarters in Ramallah, completely shunned by President George Bush and Washington officialdom. When Colin Powell, or other American officials, needed to meet lower rank Palestinians, they preferred to avoid Ramallah altogether, in favour of Jericho, to ensure adequate distance from Arafat. To reopen the White House doors to a Palestinian president must then be a great development.
Having been spotted as the best alternative to a leader who had “blocked peace in favour of terror”, Abbas, since his early days in office, was promised the honour of being received by Bush in the White House as a way of recognizing his peace credentials. The political value of this distinct “honour” has been so much on the rise that it has emerged as a precious end by itself.
Arafat paid heavily to qualify for the honour, and it must have been a severe punishment for him when it was finally withdrawn. It is obvious, therefore, that opening the White House doors to Abbas was more than a mere symbolic triumph. To further emphasize the significance, Bush was visibly cordial. He praised Abbas, described him as “a man of peace,” thus elevating his stature to that of Sharon, and addressed him right from the start as “Mr President”, when Arafat had never achieved anything beyond “Mr Chairman”.
On the more “substantial” issues, Bush was also generous. He reiterated his vision of a Palestinian state, stressing the need to preserve territorial contiguity in the West Bank, and the relationship between the West Bank and Gaza. He referred to the roadmap and even quoted from it, urging Israel to withdraw from the areas its forces occupied in September 2000. He called on Israel to “remove the illegal outposts and not to expand the settlements.”
In referring to the separation wall which Israel continues to build deep into occupied Palestinian lands — and what actually looks like an endorsement — Bush said the wall must be a security rather than a political barrier and Israel must minimize its impact on Palestinian civilians. For Israel there is nothing easier than saying yes to Bush, promising that it is a security wall which will have no impact on the Palestinians. Who is going to prove the contrary?
In an apparent contradiction to his letter of guarantees to Sharon which recognized Israeli-created facts on the ground as irreversible in any final settlement, a year earlier, Bush this time decided that any “changes to the 1949 lines must be mutually agreed” upon, and warned Israel not to undertake activity that would “prejudice final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and [even] Jerusalem”.
And probably with the clear intention of facilitating Abbas task of “agreeing,” Bush promised $50 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority; and rather than repeating the call for “dismantling the terrorist organisations” the US president called for defeating Hamas (which he still considers a terrorist organization) at the polls in a democratic fashion, not of stripping it of its arms by violence.
Admittedly, some of the presidential promises and policy statements would be considered positive if they were meant to have any real effect on the ground. They do not, however, mainly due to the absence of a time frame or mechanism for implementation; and because the president gave no hint as to what would happen if Israel paid no attention, as usual, to all the president’s appeals, calls and warnings.
It is well known on the basis of past and recent experience that Israel will only continue to implement its plans for expansion and colonization, without fear of any consequences from anywhere.
The difference between promises made by Washington to Israel and promises made to the Palestinians is that Israel, as an occupier, has the power and the means to see such promises implemented, while the Palestinian Authority has no such means and has to wait for Washington to make good on its word. This has never happened before and it is very unlikely to happen now. Equally unlikely is that Abbas will be reminded of this obvious reality, his expressed satisfaction with the results of the visit notwithstanding. More than the actual success, probably what Abbas was seeking was a convenient formula to return home with proof of the success of his visit.
The entire peace process has been based on open-ended formulas and promises, which only served so far to provide interested politicians with the time needed to prolong their political life and to provide Israel with the time needed to implement in full its expansionist plans on the whole of Palestine.
Israel, since the peace process industry was established, never committed itself to any of the peace plans which have been internationally approved since 1967. Even the plans which Israel pretended to have accepted, beginning with Security Council Resolution 242 and finishing with the roadmap, 35 years later, and all the countless peace projects in between, were never taken seriously. Israel never respected any American demand to stop building settlements or implement any measures required by any agreement to reduce tension or to show real goodwill towards an acceptable reasonable settlement. Actually, to the contrary, Sharon continues to announce that he is not interested in any final settlement with the Palestinians, and all he wants to achieve is an open-ended, unarmed truce; in other words, peace to enable Israel to absorb the occupied land without the people.
The sad irony is that although such facts are too obvious to be ignored by even the most ignorant, they continue to be ignored by the most intelligent. Why? Simply because it is convenient for political opportunism to invest in false hopes rather than expose the futility of failure.
Bush knew that his statements were no more than expressions of goodwill, not for implementation, and Abbas accepted them on that basis.
In early school days, we were taught of the mother who had no food for her children, but her maternal sentiment prevented her from presenting to the starving kids the cruel reality. She chose, instead, to pretend that she was preparing some food by endlessly stirring gravel until, out of hunger and exhaustion, they would fall asleep. The caring mother did it to reduce suffering, and not to deceive. Cooking gravel seems to be the only option left for the peace process operators. The difference is that more people discover daily what is simmering in the pot.
Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations, and was a member of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian team at the Washington peace talks in the early 1990s.