How Iraq and Palestinian Issues Came to Be Twinned in Revised Bush Strategy on Iraq

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One of the most pressing pieces of business the US president George W. Bush must tackle in Amman later this week is the demand for an international conference on Iraq which must be dominated by a built-in agenda on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Palestinian leaders, picking up the new tones in Washington, decided to cash in by announcing the cessation of Hamas’ Qassam missile attacks on Israeli civilian locations, starting Sunday, Nov. 26.
Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, loath to relinquish the high diplomatic ground to the Palestinians, promised Monday that after the kidnapped Israeli soldier is released, Israel will free many jailed Palestinians, including long term prisoners, as a confidence-building gesture to prove Israel seeks peace. As soon as a Palestinian unity government is formed, Olmert said, immediate negotiations could start with Mahmoud Abbas on the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. He allowed the evacuation of some West Bank settlements was possible in return for real peace and Palestinian renunciation of the return of 1948 Palestinian refugees. If such talks are successful, Olmert promised to release frozen Palestinian funds.
Earlier, Ehud Olmert quickly accepted the Palestinian ceasefire – against the advice of the Israeli military. He ordered the curtailment of an effective IDF anti-missile operation and a complete troop withdrawal from the northern Gaza Strip. This left non-Hamas armed factions free to continue firing and arming while Israeli troops were ordered not to interfere.
The ceasefire – like Olmert’s promises – is unlikely to survive long after Bush’s departure from the Middle East. Since Sunday, every Palestinian and Israeli verbal pronouncement has been attuned to the wavelengths of Bush and his secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. She will join him in Amman and lead the effort to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together. Her mission will be to extract results from these encounters for tempting Arab rulers to lend the United States a helping hand on the Iraq crisis.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly disclosed on November 24 that the brain behind this new strategy belongs to Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to three Republican presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Bush Sr. He is emerging as the live wire behind the latest US foreign policy departures and the pivotal figure behind the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.
This panel – which submits its final report to Congress on Dec. 10 – recommends an international conference on Iraq attended by leaders from Europe, Russia, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the main Muslim nations. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, such a conference would spend more time on the Palestinian-Israeli issue than on Iraq. The group’s leaders predict that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and other Arab participants will demand “progress on the Israel-Palestinian track” before letting the conference get down to brass tacks on Iraq.
To lay the groundwork, therefore, Washington will have to give the international community free rein to squeeze Israel for far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians – and not only the Palestinians, if Syria is to be engaged.
This would require a diametric reversal of George Bush’s previous warm attitude towards “our friend and ally” Israel, possibly even a reversion to the iciness directed against the Shamir government in the early 1990s by the elder Bush, whom James Baker served as secretary of state and Scowcroft as national security adviser.
Earlier this month, Scowcroft, as chairman of the American-Turkish Friendship League, visited Ankara for an appeal to Turkish leaders to persuade the Syrian ruler Bashar Asad to cooperate on Iraq.
His mindset was revealed in an interview he gave the Turkish Daily News of Nov. 9, 2006:
“I think we need to embed Iraq in a larger regional solution, and that to me goes back to the Palestinian issue. I think this would put us back on the offensive psychologically and even make Iraq easier to manage.”
Scowcroft then linked this viewpoint to the notion of an international conference, saying: “But I don’t think this will start with some kind of a conference because everyone will come with their preset speeches and everything will freeze again. But I think that there will be some quiet consultations in the region. I believe the Arab states in the region are eager for such a conversation. Israel may not be eager, but Israel is in bad shape right now.”
Scowcroft was therefore the first American strategic thinker to say out loud what debkafile has been reporting since early August, that George Bush and his key advisers have diagnosed Israel as coming out of the Lebanon War weakened and with its strategic situation impaired.
The cards in Washington are therefore stacked against Israel these days. An unfortunate combination has emerged of a president who regards the Jewish state as strategically weak and a brace of key US advisers on the administration’s new Iraqi policy who are drawn from the most anti-Israeli US administrations of the past. The Olmert government, however forthcoming, must brace itself for a period of intensive American pressure to cede ever more assets to curry favor with the Arabs.

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