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U.S. Middle East Policy

Bush’s Dramatic Shift in Mideast

Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail:

By Helen Thomas
Veteran White House Reporter
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
April 20, 2004

WASHINGTON – If President Bush wants to give land away, there is always his 1,600-acre ranch at Crawford, Texas.

But he has no right to endorse the Israeli claim to the captured or settled property on the West Bank that belongs to the Palestinians.

Bush had Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in glowing smiles Wednesday when he praised Sharon’s plan to retain permanent possession of parts of the West Bank that Israel seized in the 1967 war.

The president also backed Israel’s declaration that Palestinian refugees have no right of return to their homes in the territory Israel has conquered.

The dramatic switch in U.S. policy on the West Bank comes against the background of near silence on the part of the Bush administration about the wall that Israel is building on Palestinian land, a construction project that will effectively add more territory – described as the size of the state of Rhode Island – to Israel.

Sharon wasn’t shy about proclaiming his triumph after meeting with Bush.

The Washington Post quoted an unidentified White House official as spinning the U.S. cave-in in terms of alleged administration fears that Sharon would lay claim to the entire West Bank. This scenario would have us believe that the administration boldly insisted that the Israeli leader settle only for mere chunks.

Bush’s backing of the West Bank land grab was a historic reversal of U.S. policy. And, again, Bush has put the United States in a go-it-alone posture.

Javier Solana, foreign policy chief for the European Union, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying Europe would not accept any change to Israel’s borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East war unless both Israel and the Palestinians agreed to it.

“Final status issues can only be resolved by mutual agreement between parties,” Solana said.

Several Arab leaders said Bush had doomed the peace process in the Middle East because of his new policy.

Bush’s endorsement of Israel’s West Bank settlements isn’t a mere “tilt” toward Sharon’s policy – it is a total embrace that has stunned those who hoped the United States would have an “honest broker” role in Middle East affairs.

Bush has not made the slightest effort to appear even-handed. He failed to consult any Palestinians before announcing the new U.S. policy toward the West Bank.

Since he came into office Bush has ignored Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who has negotiated with several presidents in the past.

Bush still talks lamely about his “road map” for peace in the Middle East but his new West Bank policy has destroyed any shred of legitimacy that the plan may have had. What’s left to negotiate?

Secretary of State Colin Powell defended the new policy, saying it recognized “realisms that exist on the ground.”

And Americans wonder why the Arabs – who once revered us for our political ideals – now despise U.S. policies? Preach on, Mr. President, about democracy and freedom in the Middle East.

The new Bush stance is interpreted by some political pundits as a bid for the Jewish vote in the November election in order to boost the president’s prospects in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Bush’s moves also could help his continuing pursuit of Christian fundamentalists, who established close ties with Israel when Menachem Begin and Jerry Falwell made common cause in the Carter era.

Pollster John Zogby – who has his finger on the pulse of the Arab world – said: “This is pretty much the final nail in the coffin of the peace process as far as Arabs are concerned. It’s not even a political issue. It’s a bloodstream issue.”

Zogby was referring to the blow to the entire history of the search for Middle East peace.

Americans concerned that Bush has taken the wrong turn shouldn’t look to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate. Kerry signed on to the Bush-Sharon bargain in embarrassing haste, without blinking an eye.

“I think that could be a positive step,” Kerry said. “What’s important, obviously, is the security of the state of Israel, and that’s what the prime minister and president, I think, are trying to address,” Kerry added.

This is a time when peace prospects for the Middle East have never looked grimmer.

© Copyright 2004 Hearst Newspapers

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Book – Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy

Book – Taking Sides: America’s Secret Relations With Militant Israel

Book – Living by the Sword: America and Israel in the Middle East, 1968-87

Book – America and the founding of Israel: An investigation of the morality of America’s role

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