Friday, April 16, 2004


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By William Fisher

Post 9/11, the cliché de jour became the failure of the US intelligence community to “connect the dots.” Now, President’s Bush’s policy shift regarding Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan suggests that the US is again unable to connect the dots.

There are five main dots.

Dot One. One might hope that President Bush would have learned some lessons from his current dilemma regarding ‘handing over sovereignty’ in Iraq. But he evidently did not. For there is every likelihood that governance in Gaza will face a similar problem of legitimacy after the Israeli withdrawal. It may become a power vacuum ‘black hole’ when the Israelis pull out. Or it may be ruled by an unholy alliance of a thoroughly discredited Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Either scenario can inspire only deep apprehension.

Dot 2. President Bush continues to exhort the Arabs to play a bigger role in Iraq, despite opposition to this war by virtually every Middle Eastern country. Does the Sharon deal make their participation more or less likely?

Dot 3. Mr. Bush presses on with his Greater Middle East Initiative, a plan to ‘bring democracy’ to the autocracies and dictatorships of the neighborhood. The Arab Middle East has roundly rejected the Bush Initiative as a neo-colonial effort to impose reforms externally. They reasonably complain that they were never consulted. Is the Sharon decision likely to make them more receptive?

Dot 4. In Mr. Bush’s ‘roadmap’ for Israeli-Palestinian peace, such issues as Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Palestinians’ ‘right of return’ were supposed to be negotiated by the two parties, with the US as ‘honest broker’.. US displeasure with Israeli settlements has been a staple of American policy for more than 20 years, though the administration is widely perceived abroad to favor Israel over the Palestinians. With a single action, Mr. Bush has confirmed that perception and given away two of the Palestinians’ major bargaining chips.

Dot 5. The US is fighting a global war against terrorists. This is a war that cannot be won by the US acting alone. It needs help, lots of help. And much of this help has by definition to come from the countries that have spawned this generation of jihadists in the first place. Most of these countries are in the Middle East. Did the Bush administration consider the impact of its Sharon deal on America’s top priority?

These five issues are indivisible, but are being treated by the Bush administration as separate and unrelated. The President and many others in the US Government have bravely portrayed Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza as a positive step in the roadmap. The Bush administration even managed to convince Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Israel’s proposed unilateral action could be a net plus for the Palestinians, and got the aging Egyptian leader to offer to train the Palestinian police.

But the price of Mr. Mubarak’s heading home empty-handed is likely to return to bite Mr. Bush in the very near future. Mr. Mubarak is a big hitter among the 22 Arab states that are members of the gravely dysfunctional Arab League. This impotent organization has long used the Palestinian-Israeli issue as a rhetorical blunt object; warning that nothing in the Middle East can show progress while this running sore festers. The Arabs have done little to help resolve this issue, and they are now likely to do even less. Mr. Bush’s action will serve only to raise the Arab decibel level and give them another generation to use this issue as cover for their lack of development and political will.

Messrs. Bush and Sharon each have domestic political reasons to reach an agreement, with the US presidential election less than eight months away and Sharon's Likud Party due to vote soon on his strategy of disengaging from the Palestinians. Mr. Bush’s decision may well help him win more Jewish votes in November. But he is likely to pay an unacceptably high cost to many of his other plans and dreams. And so will the United States.

Connect the dots, Mr. Bush!