WASHINGTON, Aug. 28 (JTA) — President Bush may have walked into the White House proclaiming the United States an “honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Arab officials warn that with each comment blaming Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for Mideast violence, the United States is undermining its effectiveness as a mediator.
Recent comments by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have placed the bulk of responsibility for ending the 11-month-old violence on the shoulders of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, while showing more empathy for Israel’s situation.
With each statement, Palestinian and other Arabs warn, the United States is losing its stature as a neutral mediator of the Middle East peace process.
Last Friday, in his most expansive comments to date, Bush spoke little about Israel’s responsibilities, instead focusing on what Arafat needs to do.
“The Israelis have made it very clear that they will not negotiate under terrorist threat,” Bush told reporters last Friday. “And if Mr. Arafat is interested in having a dialogue that could conceivably lead to the Mitchell process” — a series of diplomatic steps outlined by an international commission under former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell — “then I strongly urge him to urge the terrorists, the Palestinian terrorists, to stop the suicide bombings, to stop the incursions, to stop the threats.”
Bush also called for restraint from Israel, but many dismissed the statement as pro forma.
The rhetorical imbalance comes shortly after Cheney expressed some understanding for Israel’s policy of targeting leading Palestinian militants and terror masterminds for death.
Bush also used a speech on missile defense last week to stress his ties to Israel, proclaiming, “Let’s protect Israel and our allies and America.”
The White House has also gone beyond rhetoric. The announcement Monday that Secretary of State Colin Powell would not attend the upcoming U.N. World Conference Against Racism gave a boost to Israeli efforts to delegitimize the conference’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attacks.
Last week, the United States used its influence to discourage a Palestinian bid to bring U.N. peacekeepers to the Middle East.
The administration’s stance has been condemned by Arab leaders, who say the United States is acting on behalf of Israel.
“We have now a full and absolute American bias,” Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said. “An American president is parroting the Israeli point of view.”
The official Web site of the Palestinian news agency quoted Arafat as calling Bush’s recent comments “very ugly and pathetic.”
These statements are a far cry from the high hopes that the Arab world once held for the Bush administration, given what it saw as the more even-handed Mideast policy of Bush’s father during his term as president — and the close ties between members of the present Bush administration and oil interests in the Arab world.
Indeed, most Arab Americans gave Bush their support in the 2000 election.
The White House bent seems to contradict the tone of the Bush administration’s first few months.
Concerned about following the path of President Clinton, who brought Israeli and Palestinian leaders together but failed to negotiate a peace deal, Bush tried to steer clear of the Mideast conflict. He frequently commented that the parties would have to make the main effort to end violence, with the United States acting solely as a facilitator.
But six months of that approach did little to improve the situation in the region; in fact, the violence has gotten worse.
“When you are not in office, the entire Middle East looks very abstract,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “After trying to be nonjudgmental for months, you realize the situation is crying out for judgement.”
What is unclear, however, is what is driving the White House’s recent determinations. While the Clinton administration was full of high-ranking officials with strong feelings on the Middle East, such officials are harder to find in the new regime.
Because many of Bush’s and Cheney’s comments seem unrehearsed rather than vetted, there is growing speculation that Bush’s renewed embrace of Israel is driven not by what is best for the region but by domestic political goals — specifically, courting the American Jewish community and other groups that support Israel.
But some Israeli advocates say Bush simply is doing what he said he would — assessing the situation in the Middle East independently.
“The job of an honest broker is not to always be in the middle, but to make an honest call,” said Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev. “It’s clear that the Palestinians are initiating violence and terror and that Israel is only responding, and it’s clear that Israel has acted with restraint.”
Jewish and Arab leaders in America do not believe the administration’s comments will reduce U.S. legitimacy in the region or harm its role as the preeminent peace mediator.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he believes other Middle Eastern countries gauge the American interest in the region by how closely the administration aligns itself with Israel.
Anytime Arab states see a gap between U.S. and Israeli positions, “they drive a Mack truck through it,” Hoenlein said.
“I can’t believe there is anyone who isn’t impressed with what the president said and his sincerity,” Hoenlein said. “The pro-Israel position hasn’t diminished the pressure for U.S. influence, it has increased it.”
Despite its anger over Bush’s comments, the Palestinian Authority continues to call for increased U.S. involvement in the peace process. Arab American leaders note the inconsistency, but see no other choice.
“It is a problem to say that we think their policy is misguided, but we want a stronger role,” said Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “The question is, What’s the alternative?”
Despite threats from the Palestinian leadership, Ibish said it is unrealistic to believe that Arab countries will turn their backs on the United States, given the funds and influence it provides in the region.
“We have accepted the hegemonic role of the United States in the region,” Ibish said. “But it is necessary to get the United States to play the role in a way that is constructive.”
While Bush’s comments have won praise from Israel, State Department statements continue to seek a middle ground. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher this week repeatedly chastised Israel’s military retaliation to Palestinian attacks, calling on both sides not to exacerbate the situation.
After Israeli troops entered Beit Jalla in response to Palestinian gunfire on Monday, Boucher said, “The Israelis need to understand that incursions like this will not solve the security problems, they only make matters worse. As a consequence, we believe the Israelis should withdraw their forces from this area.”
Many believe that the State Department’s comments are intended to balance Bush’s, restoring U.S. legitimacy as a mediator.
But as one Israeli official noted, when push comes to shove, “the president speaks for the United States.”