Bush’s Sharm el-Sheikh/Aqaba Initiative Lies in Tatters

The final death knell for President George W. Bush’s Middle East initiative, affirmed at the sea resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba last June, was sounded Wednesday, November 12, the day Ahmed Qureia and his new Palestinian government were sworn in.

Bush’s failure on the Israeli-Palestinian front went largely unnoticed. World attention was riveted that day on the terrorist massacre of Italian troops in the south Iraqi town of Nassirya and the mounting coalition death toll in Iraq.

Not so in the Palestinian territories. There, Yasser Arafat – despite his failing health – received a stream of delegations from across the West Bank rushing to congratulate him on his great victory. The wily Arafat, again outsmarting everyone around him, managed to maneuver Qureia into forming a government in which the prime minister has only one lone supporter, Washington’s favorite Palestinian reformer, finance minister Salam Fayyad. Abu Ala’s government is simply packed with Arafat’s cronies and loyalists from his pre-Oslo days in Tunis – a recipe for continuing anarchy and corruption in the Palestinian administration and an impasse in peace negotiations with Israel.

Even Fayyad, frequently praised by Bush for fighting for financial transparency in a Mafia-like Palestinian Authority, watched helplessly when Arafat reduced his authority to the point that he no longer shows up at his finance ministry desk. The man who put the Palestinian budget on the Internet is now operating in virtual reality out of his own home. Adding insult to injury, Arafat left him in the government simply to avoid giving Washington, international donors and the World Bank where Fayyad once worked, a pretext for badgering him about corruption.

In sum, Arafat has sidelined all the Palestinian officials who advocated an end to terrorism and the introduction of government reforms which Bush saw as crucial steps on the road to Palestinian statehood.

Abu Ala, who supports the Bush line, may sit in the prime minister’s chair, but his hands are empty; he holds no real power. At best, he can act as go-between for Arafat in contacts with the Bush administration and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Even that task would be thankless given that neither Bush nor Sharon want to have anything to do with the “rais”.

The new Palestinian government is therefore no more than a puppet with Arafat pulling the strings from his Muqata compound in Ramallah.

At the same time, Israel is not off the hook. Defense minister Shaul Mofaz heard some tough talk during a visit to Washington this week about Sharon’s failure to create any diplomatic momentum in the direction of peace moves or the relief of human suffering in the Palestinian areas ruled by Arafat.

“Everything Arafat does is influenced by events in Iraq,” Mofaz tried to argue.

“Everything you do affects the situation in Iraq,” the state department and national security council shot back.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report that both sides had little to say about Syrian president Bashar Assad, agreeing he was one “very strange bird”.

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