Middle East “Super Monday” in Washington
Monday, March 1, several hives of activity will focus on the Middle East’s most intractable conflict and the next stage of the Bush design to remake the region.
Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s two senior aides, Dov Weisglass and his new national security council director Giora Eiland, will be in Washington, officially to present the essentials of the prime minister’s initiative for Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians by means of the partial evacuation of Israeli dwellers from the Gaza Strip and from isolated locations in the West Bank and the construction of a fence – both for protection against terrorists and as a divider.
To ease acceptance, the fence was shortened by 80 km and underwent major surgery to straighten out loops curving into the West Bank. The biggest sacrifice is the section that was supposed to guard Israel’s international Ben Gurion airport, the densely populated Modi’in-Re’ut-Maccabim region, and highways linking it to Jerusalem, from terrorist attack. These vital areas will be denied the protection of a defense barrier separating next-door Palestinian areas.
The European Union’s foreign affairs executive Javier Solana will land in Washington on the same day as the Israeli delegation. He will be coming to hear arguments from secretary of state Colin Powell and the president’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in favor of Europe joining forces with the United States in the execution of a regional strategy and the Sharon plan.
All parties are aware that Israel will be at the receiving end of demands for further “adjustments” to make the Bush strategy attractive to the European Union.
Therefore, the fate of the Weisglass-Eiland presentation depends largely on the outcome of Solana’s talks with US leaders.
Not entirely by chance, Friday, February 27, Irish foreign minister Brian Cowan handed visiting foreign minister Silvan Shalom in Dublin with a plan that Solana will also discuss with his American hosts. Ireland is the present EU president. The plan centers on the deployment of NATO forces in areas evacuated by Israel, NATO being a euphemism for European troops. Long dreamed of by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and embodied in the Geneva proposals developed by Israeli dove Yossi Beilin and Palestinian Yasser Abd Rabbo, every Israeli government has rejected the notion in the past. Shalom explained to the Irish minister that the presence of foreign troops would hold Israel back from pursuing terrorists and prejudice its national security.
As he spoke, the subject was being thoroughly explored in the White House, according to debkafile‘s Washington sources, by President George W. Bush and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder when they met to bury their pre-Iraq War hatchet.
Solana will almost certainly take up the American offer. He will not miss the opportunity to gradually forced Israel back, step by step, into a comprehensive withdrawal – not only from the Gaza Strip but also from the West Bank under the US-European aegis. Every peace proposal he ever initiated always hinged heavily on Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
The erosion has begun. Sharon’s proposed removal of 17 of the 19 Gaza Strip Jewish settlements has morphed in diplomatic parlance to total withdrawal of settlers and troops alike. The most unobtrusive casualty of this projected stampede is the security strip along the Israel-Egyptian frontier that was enshrined in the 1979 peace treaty signed by the late Menahem Begin and Anwar Sadat, for which they shared a Nobel Prize and which holds up to the present day. Eliminating the border crossing at the southern tip of Rafah would push the Israeli frontier 70 km north almost up to the Mediterranean town of Ashkelon.
And that is just for starters. Powell, Rice and Solana are both old hands at the negotiating table. Concessions made at the outset are likely to snowball. The European official will not miss the chance of building on the Gaza withdrawal and partial removal of West Bank settlements. He will get his chance when Washington asks to hear what concessions Europe requires from Israel to get the Europeans behind the United States on other issues like Iraq and Syria.
Both sides will be keen to accommodate one another and increase Bush’s Middle East momentum. The mission that takes Weisglass and Eiland to Washington is therefore not the presentation of the Sharon plan but rather to hear what further concessions are demanded before the Israeli prime minister is invited for his oft-postponed visit to the White House.
The Bush administration faces a far tougher challenge to its plans for the region on the Arab side of the Middle East. Monday, too Mark Grossman, the state department’s Number Three, heads out for Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and Turkey, to sell the president’s democratic reforms program to key Arab leaders as well as Ankara. His trip follows a little-noticed declaration delivered in unison last week by two moderate Arab leaders, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Together, they flatly rejected the Western model of democracy that “does not suit a region largely driven by Islamic teachings.” They affirmed that the US “Greater Middle East Initiative” is not compatible with the “its specificities and Arab identity.” Bahrain has since endorsed this declaration.
To make sure the message is audible in Washington, 22 Arab League foreign ministers meet in Cairo this same “Super Monday” to draft a common stand against “the controversial American plan to spread democracy in the region.” It will be tabled at the Tunis Arab summit on March 29-30.