The Bush administration’s Middle East policy, hinging on a nebulous peace summit in Washington in November, faded into the background in a week of such events as the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s provocations at the UN General Assembly and New York’s Columbia University.
The Iranian’s outrageous performance caught Washington’s foreign policymakers unarmed. They were busy firing all their ammunition in an effort to get the Middle East peace conference promoted by the White House off the ground, only to find it was an exercise in futility.
Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal said politely but firmly in New York on Sept. 26 that he cannot confirm his government’s attendance.
In private conversations at UN headquarters, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report, the prince made it clear that the Saudi decision not to participate in the summit was final.
And at their talks in Amman the same day, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah also decided to give the conference a miss because they see no clear agenda for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Out of respect for President George W. Bush and the United States, the two Arab rulers decided to offer to send representatives of the rank of foreign ministry department heads should the event take place after all.
In an all-out effort to salvage the conference, the State Department was prepared to invite Syria and Lebanon and even rank outsiders like Sudan. But the major Arab players stood by their refusal to come. Even when President Bush stepped in with a flattering audience for the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, he too steadily refused to budge from the rejection he communicated to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Ramallah last week.
More Israel-Palestinian turbulence in store
Abbas said there was no point in holding a Middle East peace summit when his two months’ of talks with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert had yielded no accord on a single issue.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources say the failure of this conference to take off – it will no doubt be diplomatically “postponed” – spells the collapse of the Bush drive to establish on his watch a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. As he approaches his final year as president, Bush has run out of time for the Palestinian question. His attention is claimed fully by far more burning Middle East issues such as Iran’s intractable nuclear ambitions, the never-ending crises in Iraq as the first US troop withdrawals fall due and America’s redeployment for a permanent presence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
The future of the Lebanese presidency is still up in the air, Syrian president Bashar Assad is a thorn in Western sides; but, perhaps the most pressing issue for the administration at this point, is the future of Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, who is in the throes of a complicated bid for re-election.
With the US administration’s hand removed, the general view in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah is that the security turbulence between Israel and the Palestinians and the internal crisis splitting the Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is bound to go from bad to worse.
Those Middle East and military sources see signs of an approaching showdown on the West Bank between the Ramallah-based Abbas loyalists and the radical coalition based in Gaza of Hamas, Jihad Islami and the various rejectionist Palestinian “Fronts.” Egged on by their sponsors in Damascus, Tehran and the Hizballah, they will try and follow up their June coup in the Gaza Strip by overthrowing the Palestinian government in Ramallah and seizing absolute control of Palestinian territory.
Two scenarios are foreseen:
· A free-for-all in every town across the West Bank, or
· Hamas will confine itself to securing control of the towns where it is strong, such as Nablus, Qalqilya, Jenin, Tulkarm, Hebron and large sections of the refugee camps scattered across the West Bank. There, Hamas has in recent weeks greatly improved its position against the rival Fatah and Palestinian Authority security forces.
With Israel pinned down in Gaza, Hamas expects a cakewalk on West Bank
Whichever of the two scenarios Hamas selects, DEBKA-net-Weekly‘s military sources see the same outcome. Hamas and its allies will make substantial gains and isolate Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah and in pockets around Jericho and Bethlehem.
Even the second scenario, if successful, would mean that Hamas had expanded its rule beyond the tiny Gaza Strip and wrested control of swathes of land and a Palestinian population from the rival Abbas-Fayyad government.
The rationale determining Hamas’ next moves goes beyond the rift between the Palestinian factions. The Islamist movement’s leaders in Gaza and Damascus are closely attuned to the words coming from Israeli leaders.
Wednesday, Sept. 26, defense minister Ehud Barak said: “We (the Israeli armed forces) are approaching a major operation in the Gaza Strip, which for various reasons was not staged in recent weeks. It won’t be easy. From the perspectives of the size of the force, the timeline for their stay and the military situations they are liable to face, it will be very complicated.”
Hamas has its forces standing ready for an Israeli invasion of Gaza as they continue to shoot missiles day after day across the border.
Its tacticians are counting on Israel being handicapped by having to sustain its buildup on the Golan opposite the Syrian border and on the Lebanese border opposite Hizballah. They calculate that, pinned down in Gaza and in the north, Israel will not have enough troops to spare for a fourth front for spiking a Hamas bid to overthrow Abbas’ rule on the West Bank.
Hamas leaders have no illusions about having the strength to stop an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, but they bank on the acquisition of new turf on the West Bank to compensate for losses in Gaza.
These undercurrents about to break surface render the Bush Middle East summit more irrelevant than ever, as the Arab rulers invited to the event fully appreciate.