Who is on the sidelines?

Washington – Once again, George W. Bush in his supreme wisdom has ratcheted up the level of Palestinian-Israeli conflict in parroting the Israeli line, despite his father’s promise to an Arab leader, that the new American leader’s “heart is in the right place.”

Bush divulged his attitude to the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation: “If (the Palestinians) are that interested in peaceful dialogue, they ought to do everything they can to stop the terrorist activity that has accelerated in recent months.”

Hardly had 48 hours passed after the American leader uttered his biased position at his Texas ranch, when Israeli missiles fired from US-supplied helicopters killed the leader of a radical Palestinian group at his office in the Palestinian-run town of Ramallah.

This presidential inanity followed another misguided American action earlier this month which derailed a Palestinian bid at the UN Security Council, calling for the deployment of international observers to monitor the fighting underway in the occupied Palestinian areas.

The escalation in Israeli warmongering earned the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a loud slap from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. “The Israelis have raised tension in the region to levels we have not seen in many years.”

It is very possible that the reverberations from this UN rebuke may have been heard at the White House which remains locked in a behind-the-scene turf war with the slightly more forthcoming State Department over US policy in the Middle East.

In Annan’s opinion, Israel’s assassination of Abu Ali Mustafa, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) whose return from Damascus to the West Bank last year was approved by Israel, “underscores the urgency” of getting the Palestinians and Israelis together. “I am worried that if we do not contain the crisis it will spread,” he said.

In fact, there are ample indications that a realignment of Arab forces surrounding Israel maybe under way. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, still viewed as an American pariah, is scheduled to visit Damascus on Sept. 12 for the first time in five years, an event that will be scrutinised in capitals around the Arab world and elsewhere. If a Palestinian-Syrian reconciliation is afoot, as seems likely, this will no doubt change the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, contrary to the wishes of American and Israeli policy makers.

The visit to Washington earlier this month of senior Egyptian presidential foreign policy adviser Osama Al Baz has evidently failed to sway American thinking on the Middle East. This, in part, is due to what one commentator described as “the mindless hysteria of the American punditocracy” as espoused by the likes of columnists George Will, Michael Kelly and Charles Krauthammer, who believe that all Israel needs is “a short war and a high wall.” These sophomoric commentaries have nevertheless provided the Bush White House with a comfortable cushion, if not ammunition, against its critics who have decried US inaction.

This Egyptian failure, followed the lukewarm support the Bush administration (and Israel) gave to the Egyptian-Jordan peace initiative that was circulated earlier this summer to get both Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. The dismissal of Egyptian apprehensions voiced by Baz in his meeting with American officials and at think tanks, about the threats to regional stability in the Middle East should the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continue unchecked, is bound to embarrass Arab governments.

The attention is now solely focused on American timidity to take a plunge into the Palestinian-Israeli morass, since, as the Israeli paper Haaretz put it: “The new Sharon is America’s staunch ally in the Middle East, the keeper of regional stability.”

If this is the case, tomorrow’s eye-catching headline will most likely highlight the insignificance of Arab power; in other words, all the Arab governments are as much on the sidelines as the US administration, which has granted Sharon a carte blanche to plant havoc in the region.

But how long can Arab governments keep the lid on the seething masses, who are aware of the West’s hunger for Arab oil, is a question that has yet to be raised but may not take long to be answered.