- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

President Bush met with two different Middle Eastern leaders at the White House on Tuesday. The first was Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, and the second was Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister. Although both men represent countries that are supposedly close allies of the United States, the outcome of the two meetings were about as far apart as Zionism is from fundamental Wahhabi Islam.

But in one sense, both meetings were disappointing. Mr. Bush failed to get what was needed from Mr. Sharon, and Prince Faisal failed to obtain what he wanted from Mr. Bush.

The Saudi foreign minister was hoping to convince the Bush administration to render public 28 redacted pages from an 850-page congressional report on the September 11 intelligence failures, which implicates the Saudis. The Bush administration insists the blacked-out pages are sensitive and contain material that could hamper national security if made public. The Saudis counter by asking how they could defend themselves against certain accusations if they don’t even know what they are supposed to be defending themselves against?

But isn’t this akin to closing the barn door after the horse has already been stolen?

The Saudis really don’t need 28 redacted pages to find out what went wrong in their desert kingdom. Instead, they simply need to look around in an act of self-contrition to realize all that is fundamentally wrong in their society, and that led 15 of their citizens to commandeer and hurl airliners filled with innocent people into buildings in one of the world’s worst acts of terrorism.

They need to re-evaluate their support of madrasas — Islamic schools — that encourage the teaching of hatred and support of fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden and other Wahhabi tenets.

Mr. Bush’s refusal was in fact a slap in the face to the Saudis.

But Mr. Bush had met his own rebuttal earlier in the day. Mr. Sharon emerged from his eighth meeting with the U.S. president looking content as Mr. Bush reiterated the firm U.S. commitment to safeguarding the security of the Jewish state, and lauded “positive steps taken by Israel,” such as the release of prisoners. Israel has released about 540 Palestinian prisoners out of a total of about 6,000 they currently detain.

Although the president failed to obtain a concession from the Israeli prime minister on the issue of a security fence being erected by the Israelis across the West Bank, which they hope will help prevent terror attacks, Mr. Bush remained, nevertheless, highly supportive of Israel. The Palestinians, for their part, decry the building of the fence, complaining it would impose further economic sanctions on an already faltering economy driven by high unemployment.

During his visit to the White House earlier in the week, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, warned against Israel’s planned fence, or as some call it, the “wall of separation.”

Samar Assad, publication manager at the Palestine Center in Washington writes: “Abbas warned that if the fence continued to be built on confiscated Palestinian land and to isolate Palestinian cities, towns and villages, Palestinians and Israelis will find themselves in a situation where the foundation of peace, a free Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel, is a factual impossibility.”

The Palestinians see the wall as creating a de facto annexation of approximately 55 percent of the West Bank as it snakes through the territories.

Mr. Bush at the time agreed with Mr. Abbas, calling the wall a “problem.” Mr. Abbas, who desperately needs to show his people back home that he can offer them something in return for pressuring the extremists — Hamas and Islamic Jihad — into accepting a cease-fire and possibly a compromise with Israel, believed he had convinced the U.S. president. Mr. Abbas believed Mr. Bush in turn would convince Mr. Sharon. Yet the Israeli prime minister seemed undeterred, stating that building of the fence would continue.

The great risk here — besides the fact the “road map” could soon become irrelevant — is that this will only serve to strengthen Mr. Abbas’ opponents in the peace process, giving more fodder to the extremists. “You see, we told you so,” they will most likely tell Mr. Abbas upon his return to the Palestinian areas. This will even strengthen Yasser Arafat, whom the Bush administration wanted so much sidelined.

Additionally, Mr. Sharon stressed that the peace process would move forward only after the dismantlement of terrorist groups. This places the onus on Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, who for the time being simply lack the ability to take on the fundamentalists in a head-on confrontation. The risk if they do is an all-out Palestinian civil war. At a time when anti-American feelings are on the rise in the Middle East, it is imperative that the administration understands the predicament Mr. Abbas is in.

As Samar Assad points out, “If Bush is truly dedicated to peace in the Middle East and to the success of the road map, the United States must adopt an evenhanded approach to the crisis.”

Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.

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