Middle East: Reactions to Bush speech - 6 April, 2002

The immediate reaction from the main players to the speech by President Bush was to turn one deaf ear, having the other one cocked.

The reaction in Palestinian circles was one of derision. Khalid Amayreh, a political commentator, called president Bush “ignorant” of the real situation in the Middle East and denounced the right-ring pro-Israeli faction in his administration as being responsible for Washington’s Middle East policy.

Bassem Eid, a leader of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, declared that “America has had no credibility in this region really since the Gulf War” and added that Washington should determine what Israel does as state terrorism.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of protesters have demonstrated against Israeli policy in Arab countries from Libya to Indonesia and the suspicion that US Secretary of State Colin Powell might not meet Yasser Arafat has caused open revolt in the streets of Amman, Jordan.

The Israeli reaction to the speech was a dry swallow, followed by silence. Israeli state TV and radio broadcast the speech live and commentators looked on aghast as President Bush declared that the Israeli Armed Forces should withdraw from the Palestinian cities occupied recently and should cease from building new colonies. The official reaction was that there would be no comment “for some time”, while Shaul Mofaz, Israeli Army Chief of Staff, said that the current military operation would need four weeks to be concluded successfully.

The fact that Colin Powell is to visit the region next week precludes any such scenario, but the week’s respite gives both sides the time they need to react, each saving some face. While Israeli state TV stated that Ariel Sharon had rejected President Bush’s demands and planned to continue as before, the fact is that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can afford to ignore the message behind the speech.

By calling on Arafat to stem the violence, it gives him added value as a player, although any real power he has over the extremists has been sapped by Israel’s isolation of him. By telling Israel to withdraw, Washington sends a clear message that enough is enough and that Tel Aviv no longer has a carte blanche to perform murderous acts of barbarism against all civilians, regardless of their status. Overkill has always been an Israeli trait.

Sharon cannot ignore the fact that if he proceeds, as reported, against the will of Washington, he will put his ruling coalition at risk, since he will lose the support of the labour Party in the Knesset.

Colin Powell will be walking a political tightrope. Any Palestinian suicide bombing while he is there will place the mission at risk, since the reaction from Israel will be implacable, as usual. Neither can Powell afford the type of situation which happened during his last visit, when he was forced to retract his position to allow international observers into the West Bank and Gaza Strip after a furious reaction from Israel sparked a political crisis in Washington, as the important Jewish lobby reacted.

The hawks in the Pentagon and in Washington will be observing the situation closely, hoping that Powell will make as many inroads as US Special Envoy General Zinni has, to date. Should Powell manage to broker a deal, the Arab world will have accepted the Saudi peace plan, which calls for Israel to withdraw from all Palestine Authority territory and to draw up recognised international boundaries and Israel will have made important moves on the building of colonies. This will by no means be the end of the peace process, but the beginning – a very positive one.


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Author`s name Editorial Team