I cannot help thinking that the recent trip of President Bush to the Middle East was a spectacular failure. In Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – in every country he visited and every speech he made, Bush managed to offend leaders, as well as people, in the region. Reverberations will be felt beyond.
Whether it was by calculation, or sheer incompetence, I do not know. But it certainly was not proper conduct by a visiting head of state. Nor would it help fighting the fires that are burning in the most politically sensitive region on the planet. His optimism that ‘a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East is possible’ is shared by no one. And as he runs out of time, he is also running out of friends. No wonder Arabs are furious and depressed.
Let us face it. When you visit a place with enemies living side by side and you plan to see them all, you have to be careful. It is wise not to go over the top in praise of one side if you want to influence the other and play a role in settling the crisis. The speech by George W Bush in the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem was provocative to say the least. There was not a pretence of impartiality when Bush told the world that ‘America was Israel’s closest ally’ and Israel was ‘a homeland for the chosen people’, barely mentioning the plight of the Palestinians. It was the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmood Abbas, who had to put the record straight – the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 coincided with a conflict that made 700,000 Palestinians homeless. As Abbas remarked, it was a ‘catastrophe’ for the Palestinian people.
Usual Arab courtesy was difficult to maintain. Abbas confronted Bush directly when the two met. Frank words were exchanged and Abbas told Bush that he, as President of America, had to show balance.
Palestinian newspapers were unanimous in their condemnation of George W Bush. In two of the closest US allies in the Arab world – Egypt and Jordan – Bush attracted severe criticisms. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Jumhuriyah accused him of twisting facts. Al-Akhbar remarked that Bush came to express his complete bias. This president did not think that his role as the leader of the most powerful country demands neutrality, or at least objectivity.
Al-Ghad of Jordan expressed outrage in an editorial, saying that Bush had come not to repeat his promise of a Palestinian state, but to celebrate with his Zionist friends the anniversary of the state based on occupation and rape. Al Arab Al Yawm, another Jordanian publication, described Bush’s speech to the Israeli Parliament as full of bigotry. Interestingly, the Syrian publication, Tishrin, was measured in comparison, with remarks that ‘Bush is backtracking on promises he made during the Annapolis conference on the declaration of a Palestinian state’ before the end of 2008.
Even Israeli newspapers were uncertain how to take his explosive intervention. In the view of the Jerusalem Post, “Bush didn’t have to utter these thoughts. His career is over, he no longer needs Jewish vote.” And Ha’aretz warned the Israelis: “We should not allow this show of solidarity to go to our heads. Grave dangers lie ahead and no-one can do the job in our stead.”
The disaster that was his Middle East trip did not end there. In Egypt, Bush lectured President Hosni Mubarak on democracy and civil liberties, as well as the need to isolate terrorism. He told the Muslim people in the Middle East to realize that Hezbollah, Hamas and Al-Qaeda have to be defeated. He warned that the ‘light of liberty’ was at risk from ‘spoilers such as the regimes in Iran and Syria’ and called on the region to reject their policies and prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
The meeting of the World Economic Forum at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh was the last straw for President Mubarak. Bush told his audience that politics in the Middle East ‘consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail’. Mubarak, who has been Egypt’s President for over 25 years, was not there to listen to him. And Bush was not there to listen to Mubarak when he spoke.
It is all very odd in light of the foreign policy of the Bush administration, which has used authoritarian regimes mercilessly. So what is behind this extraordinary behaviour? It is possible that, deep down, George W Bush realizes his own powerlessness to shape events and is blaming everybody else for the mess. Or he thinks that a Democratic victory is very likely in November and has no interest in making things easier for the next President of the United States.
The above comment was published on May 21, 2008 on The Palestine Chronicle.