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Shake Our Conflict With A Firm Hand

A diplomatic round table on President Bush’s plan for regional reform

President Bush is not the first to try his hand at changing the annoying nature of our region by adding to it a positively sounding prefix, as is the case with the “Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative” he was set to unveil at this week’s G8 summit.

Former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres tried it before, too. In early 1996, as spokesman of his government, I traveled with him to the annual assembly of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he delivered an animated speech in praise of his much-acclaimed vision of a “New Middle East” — a region in which Arabs and Jews, instead of fighting each other, would do business together. He was rewarded by his cosmopolitan audience with a standing ovation.

Upon returning home, Peres was immediately rewarded with horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the heart of Israeli cities, and a bloody fight with the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Peres eventually re-offered his vision under a more subdued title, “The Old Middle East in a New Era,” but that exercise in semantics failed to salvage his dream.

No wonder, then, that when Arab countries first got wind of Bush’s offer of economic perks in return for reform, grunts of suspicion and resentment could be heard across the region. American officials tried to sell the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative as a response to Arab calls for reform and change. But Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two major pillars on which such initiative should have been based, declined Washington’s invitation to attend the G8 summit. Even Karl Rove couldn’t spin his way out of that one.

The Arab countries object to what they perceive as the high-handedness of the American initiative, arguing that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. And, of course, they are insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be included in the discussion over Arab reform. As far as they see it, resolution of the conflict is the key to progress in the entire region.

With Iraq turning out to be anything but the beacon of democracy that Washington had hoped for, will Bush buy Arab support by paying them with Israeli currency? Such a scenario is not impossible.

The approaching June 30 deadline for handing over sovereignty to the Iraqis is sure to be used in the Arab world as a soul-searching event, with a lot of finger-pointing and harsh questions leveled at America. Already, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison have made Uncle Sam a particularly unlikable fellow in these quarters. It is therefore likely that Arab leaders, who from day one have been insisting that force alone is not the answer to the complex Iraqi problem, might now use the ongoing embarrassment in Iraq to pressure Washington into a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — an old euphemism for putting pressure on Israel.

With well-respected figures like retired general Anthony Zinni publicly insinuating that a bunch of neoconservatives pushed America into Iraq in order to benefit Israel, it’s not so hard to imagine Bush feeling less than generous toward Jerusalem. “They say I went to war in Iraq for you,” I can see him telling Prime Minister Sharon. “Now, what are you going to do for me?”

Yet as frustrated as the American president may be with the way things are going in Iraq, if he does change tack on his policy toward Israel, it will be motivated by a different grudge. It wasn’t too long ago that Sharon came to Washington to ask for Bush’s endorsement of his Gaza withdrawal plan. Though the president was hesitant, he not only gave his blessing, but also made what was for all intents and purposes an unprecedented rejection of the Palestinian right to return to Israel. Sharon returned home beaming, but then proceeded to fumble miserably in selling the plan to his party members — and that is precisely what may eventually make the Texan explode. “First you came here and promised me the moon,” Bush could be imagined fuming to the Israeli prime minister, “and now you can’t even keep your own party in line?”

Yet even if such a clash comes to pass, it will all but certainly not resemble the diplomatic battle in 1991 between then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and the elder President Bush, who made vital loan guarantees conditional on an end to settlement building. Shamir was a die-hard ideologue who was unwilling to yield an inch, even if it cost him his job — which it did.

Sharon, on the other hand, seems to be candid in his effort to pull Israel out of Gaza. I don’t buy the conspiracy theory aired by some Israeli commentators that Sharon schemed the failure of his own disengagement plan in order to buy Israel time until after America’s presidential elections. There is a limit to Machiavellism, after all. As a matter of fact, Sharon has shown his determination to make good his promise to Bush. He has even been willing to fire two Cabinet minister opposed to the plan, Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, and thereby risk a crisis in the government.

Simply put, in the current situation, Israel has nothing to fear from a more even-handed approach by Washington. In fact, it just might turn out to be a blessing in disguise if Bush does indeed decide to slam his fist on the table and demand action; maybe the anachronistic naysayers in the Likud who voted against the Gaza withdrawal, and who are all but certain to undermine this week’s historic Cabinet decision to implement it, will finally understand that it’s time to move on.

Perhaps Bush should rename his initiative “The Same Middle East.” After all, all of us here in this wretched region who enjoy America’s generosity — Arabs and Israelis alike — know perfectly well that once in a while, we also need to feel America’s firm hand. While we publicly resent and denounce it, deep in our hearts we know we actually should be grateful.

Uri Dromi, director of outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute, was chief spokesman in the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

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