Judging Abbas

U.S. President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Abbas engage in a photo-op at the Oval Office May 26 (White House photo by Eric Draper)


Just two weeks ago — seated comfortably in his well-appointed Washington office — a former senior American foreign policy advisor (who asked that he not be identified by name), gave this judgment of the Bush administration’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “What most people around the world don’t know,” he said, “is that in our system what the President says dictates our international stance. Just read the Constitution. The President is responsible for the foreign policy of the country. So when George Bush gives a policy speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, everyone stop talking and listen very closely. Because what he says is policy.”

That judgment was far less ambiguous than this senior official intended. “I listened to what Bush said on May 26 when [President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen was with him at the White House,” he explained. “The implications are enormous. What he said is important.” The official then nodded his head sagely: “You should go back and take a look at his remarks. The President changed his views on the conflict. He did it in public. Abu Mazen was standing right there. The problem is that no one really noticed. The silence was overwhelming. But there is a real shift going on.”

This senior official is not alone in his views. Henry Siegman, one of the most respected commentators on the conflict, also noted the shift in an article that appeared in the June 21 edition of The International Herald Tribune. Bush’s May 26 White House speech, Siegman wrote, marked “an explicit rejection” of Sharon’s understanding of what Bush would and would not support as a reasonable settlement of the conflict.

There were, in all, two major shifts. In April of last year, Bush assured Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel could retain “new Israeli population centers” it had established in the West Bank. The assurance conceded that Israel would be able to keep its major West Bank settlements. But on May 26, Bush abrogated that pledge, saying that final status negotiations must begin at “the 1949 armistice lines.” No changes to that border, Bush said, can come without Palestinian consent.

Bush then added that Israel must take no steps to “prejudice final status negotiations” — including negotiations on Jerusalem. This was the first time that Bush explicitly stated that the status of Jerusalem was to be determined through negotiations. In all, the shift in Bush’s rhetoric on May 26 was breathtaking - he was rolling back the pledges that he had made to Ariel Sharon just one year before.

Which is not to say that peace is at hand. “Bush should be unrelentingly held to his latest statement of US policy,” Siegman noted. What Siegman failed to add, but what he implied, is that Bush “should be unrelentingly held to his latest statement of US policy” by the Palestinians. The implication is that without “unrelenting” pressure from the Palestinian leadership, as well as from Arab leaders in the region, Bush could easily give a new speech — and reverse, yet again, what he said on May 26.

“The White House waited for a response from the region, from the Palestinians, from the press,” a senior Middle East expert said, “and there was simply nothing. There was a paragraph in The Washington Post, a couple of paragraphs in The New York Times, and that was it. And there was nothing from the region. No one seemed to notice. There was no comment, no endorsement, no nothing. It was as if people didn’t read what Bush was saying. It was stunning.”

The silence from the Middle East, and particularly from the new Palestinian leadership, might be understandable. After all, this would not be the first time that Bush gave a significant statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and then retired, self-satisfied, to the Oval Office. Then too, if Arab leaders are a bit jaded by Bush’s continued posturing on the conflict, it is only because the President’s continued bear hugs of Ariel Sharon, that “man of peace,” has made them so.

Nevertheless, White House officials admit that they were disappointed in Abu Mazen’s otherwise successful visit to Washington. The new Palestinian president pledged his support for democracy and transparency but, as a reporter who covered Bush’s May 26 remarks noted “he failed to respond creatively to what Bush said. It was just democracy, freedom, and all of that. It was blah, blah, blah. It was all very scripted. You have to wonder whether he read what the president said.”

Perhaps even more significantly, the ramifications of George Bush’s May 26 statement on the conflict go well beyond his prepared remarks. Just after Bush read his statement and Abu Mazen responded, the White House press corps pressed Bush on whether his support for democracy meant that he would accept Hamas’s participation in Palestinian elections. Bush was prepared for the question: “Our position on Hamas is very clear, it’s a well-known position and it hasn’t changed about Hamas: Hamas is a terrorist group; it’s on a terrorist list for a reason,” Bush said, and then he paused slightly before plunging on.

“As the elections go forward, of course, we want everybody to participate in the vote. There is something healthy about people campaigning, saying, this is what I’m for.” Bush then reinforced what he had been propounding for many weeks, and that he firmly believes: that democracy would dampen extremism, that in any vote “people that campaign for peace will win.”

Even so, a little more than one week later, Mahmoud Abbas announced that the Palestinian Authority had decided to postpone the scheduled July parliamentary elections. The decision brought little reaction from official Washington, except when a number of Middle East news outlets, including Al Jazeera, reported that the postponement came as a result of pressure from the Bush administration. The White House quietly seethed about the reports, but dodged reporters questions on whether Bush had privately pressed Mahmoud Abbas to take the action until Fatah could be strengthened. “No comment,” one White House official said tersely in the wake of the decision.

A State Department official, however, was clearly irritated by the media statements, and suspicious that the Palestinian leadership purposely passed around the story of White House pressure in order to shirk responsibility for a decision that it took on its own. The Middle East press was “absolutely certain” of White House pressure, he was told, and had reported it quite publicly. “Not so,” he insisted, and then added, tersely: “Did you read the President’s May 26 statement? Did you hear what he said?”

In truth, Bush administration officials believe that the Palestinian leadership’s decision to postpone the July elections actually strengthened Hamas, and remained skeptical that Fatah could gain any strength in the months ahead. A report from The Economist of June 9 reflected the views of many administration officials: “the more Fatah founders, the more Hamas will become a legitimate, democratic representative of many Palestinians: one that nobody can ignore.”

Finally, on June 20, the White House responded to the election postponement, albeit indirectly, by carefully crafting a joint statement issued by U.S. and European Union officials: “We support the holding of free, fair, and transparent multi-party legislative elections in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, under the scrutiny of international observers and with full freedom of movement for candidates and voters, as another vital step forward on the path towards building a reformed and accountable Palestinian Authority.”

Watching all of this from afar, one noted expert on the conflict gave a final and damning appraisal of Mahmoud Abbas’s Washington visit and the election decision. “Mahmoud Abbas is a good man,” he said, “and he deserves to be supported. But he needs to get up off of his chair, cross the room, and turn off the television. And then he needs to sit down and read what the President said about a final settlement and elections. Then he needs to read the joint communique. The he needs to read them again. Just exactly what is it that he doesn’t understand about this?”

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    This article was first published on 15 June 2005 in Palestine Report Online, a project of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in Jerusalem, and is reprinted with permission. Palestine Report Online is a continuation of the print Palestine Report, which was established over twelve years ago as a means of informing English-speakers about Palestinians and their daily lives in the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also in this week’s edition: Also in this week’s edition: PR interviews Khalil Tufakji on Israeli plans to expand Jordan Valley settlements and gets down with the Palestinian rap group DAM.