Could We Please Put the Mid East Dispute on Ice

In the last two weeks, US President George W. Bush has invited the most prominent Middle East leaders for visits to hear a simple request: Get the Israeli-Palestinian issue out of my hair until after I’ve finished with Iraq.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Saudi crown prince Abdullah, King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, came away with the impression that Bush had given up on his vision of a Palestinian state.

He has not, but he wants the Palestinian issue to leave him in peace in the immediate term. When the Iraqi campaign is behind him, he will get back to it. But the US president failed to make his meaning clear to his guests – both because the Palestinians have never, ever taken a back seat in international affairs and because he used diplomatic language to make his wish known.

What he said was that a Palestinian state is a dream to strive for, but for now, the Palestinians have no leader able to make the dream come true.

Crown prince Abdullah, not prepared to let Bush get away with shunting Yasser Arafat aside, urged him to give the Palestinian leader one more chance to prove he was worthy of trust.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that Bush, for whom Arafat is permanently in last chance status, was unconvinced. However, so that he could get back to the Iraq problem undisturbed, he promised the Saudi de facto ruler he would grant his request – as long as Arafat kept to the Gaza Strip

Bush’s decision signaled a fervent desire to wash his hands of the Palestinian Authority in view of its conspicuous failure to stem terrorism. In private conversations, he said he was prepared to talk about the Palestinian Authority only in the context of the Gaza Strip now that Israel was in effective control of the West Bank.

Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah understood the US President to be saying that Arafat can no longer dodge his obligation to fight terrorism, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He fumed, but Bush stuck to his guns. He argued that Arafat, who complains that his security agencies in the West Bank were disbanded by Israel, still has the chance to prove himself by ordering his still intact Gaza Strip security and intelligence agencies to fight terrorism. Moreover, the United States was ready to send in CIA Director George Tenet to shape the often-rival security organizations into a single, viable and effective force.

But Bush laid down two conditions: Arafat must move against terror and limit his governance to the Gaza Strip.

Asked by Abdullah about the West Bank, Bush urged the crown prince to be realistic and understand that Israel was in control of the territory. This suits the US president’s plan for quiet on at least one Palestinian front for as long he needs to prepare for the offensive against Iraq. To the Saudi prince, he explained that Washington’s leverage for making Israel withdraw was limited as long as its cities were threatened by terrorists – especially on the part of suicide killers.

Bush also drew Abdullah’s attention to the Iraqi intelligence and terror base established on the West Bank and to the al-Qaeda cells – some of which Israel has uncovered – on the ground. Until recently, Bush said, the United States believed that Arafat had opened the West bank door to Iraq. But now, Washington had changed its mind and was convinced that Baghdad had set up a military intelligence presence in the territory as an Iraqi power base – a theory which Israeli sources do not buy. Iraq’s vehicle of penetration is the human and financial aid Saddam extends to the families of Palestinians killed or wounded in the Intifada.

Two weeks after the Bush-Abdullah talks in Crawford Texas were hailed by the US media as highly successful, the reality is emerging of bumpy passages and scars in the relationship that are too deep to heal.

Bush suspects Abdullah’s royal circle and Saudi military intelligence of pulling the strings behind the latest anti-American moves around the Gulf emirates, such as the sudden announcement by Oman’s foreign minister, Yusof bin Alawi bin Abdullah, that his country would not allow the United States to use Omani territory to attack any Arab nation or target – essentially, Iraq.

The United States maintains large air and naval forces in Oman as well as its biggest military storage depots in the Gulf. The Americans believe the Saudis are punishing them for declaring that Washington can live without the Prince Sultan airbase near Riyadh and has other Gulf options.

The Americans also discern the long arm of Saudi intelligence in the anti-American disturbances troubling Bahrain for the past two months and in the riots that erupted in southern Jordan against King Abdullah, who is regarded as the most staunchly pro-American Arab leader.

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