Saturday, June 12, 2004

The long-anticipated Greater Middle East Initiative President George W. Bush unveiled at the G8 summit Wednesday has already drawn opposition from Arab leaders claiming the plan is loaded with risks for the region.

The initiative heralds establishment of a “historic Partnership for Progress and a Common Future,” with the aim to “advance freedom, democracy, and prosperity in the region.” Indeed, praiseworthy endeavors.

The proposal is an admirable attempt at jump-starting a region of the world badly in need of economic, political and social reforms. Many countries in the Middle East are stagnating, falling under the heavy load of corruption, suffering from bureaucracy, lack of comprehensive education and, as increasingly evident in Saudi Arabia, of Islamist insurgency. There is no disputing Middle East reform is needed badly.

Yet, missing from the communique issued at the Sea Island, Ga., summit of the seven leading industrial nations and Russia is a comprehensive outline on how to address the two root questions fueling the Middle East’s never-ending problems — the explosive Israeli-Palestinian issue and terrorism. Instead, the Bush plan focused more heavily on reform, a topic that frightens many Arab leaders who fear reform — and democracy — would eventually make them obsolete.

President Bush had invited to Sea Island a number of Arab leaders, including Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among countries with the greatest need for reform. Both stayed away, fearing they would be forced to accept change they would later regret.

Mr. Mubarak and Prince Abdullah have now formed, what Arab television al-Jazeera calls “an Arab front against President Bush’s initiative for reform.” Ironically, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the closest U.S. allies in the region.

Additionally the Arab leaders feel the Sea Island initiative placed far too little emphasis on the major leitmotif behind the Middle East’s unrest — the Arab-Israeli dispute.

The 12-point Initiative only addressed the question of Israel/Palestine in the second-sub paragraph of Point No. 5.

That clause states: (5.2.) “The resolution of long-lasting, often bitter, disputes, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is an important element of progress in the region.”

This is quite a lame statement on a dispute that has generated five regional wars in as many decades, that is the cause of an ongoing bloody uprising and that continues to be the reason for violence, strife and generator of Islamic fundamentalism and fanatical terrorism.

There is a second point touching upon the thorny Palestinian-Israeli issue, it reads:

“(6) Our support for reform in the region will go hand in hand with our support for a just, comprehensive, and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, based upon U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338. We fully endorse the Quartet’s Statement of May 4, 2004, and join the Quartet in its ‘common vision of two states, Israel and a viable, democratic, sovereign and contiguous Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.’… We join in the Quartet’s call for ‘both parties to take steps to fulfill their obligations under the road map as called for in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1515 and previous Quartet statements…. ‘ We reaffirm that a just, comprehensive, and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, including with respect to Syria and Lebanon, must comply with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 425, which ‘Calls for strict respect for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon within its internationally recognized boundaries.’ ”

So how is a “comprehensive, and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict” to be achieved? According to President Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative, “based upon U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338,” etc.

But weren’t those resolutions the basis for previous peace negotiations — negotiations that led to dead-ends? Indeed.

It was only at the insistence of the G8’s European participants that the Israeli-Palestinian question was given greater attention. Accordingly, representatives from the Quartet — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — will return to the region in the near future to try to revive the lifeless Road Map.

Initially, the Initiative some Europeans feared lacked clarity. It failed to address steps needed to bring the antagonists back to the peace talks. But the Arab-Israeli dispute was given greater attention. Arab leaders question how the Bush administration will play the role of unbiased mediator given Mr. Bush’s continual endorsements of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plans and his sidelining of the Palestinian leadership.

But given the resistance several Arab leaders already have displayed, the question remains whether this initiative is not likely to join previous failed Middle East peace incentives and unfulfilled U.N. resolutions in the dustbin of history.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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