Friday, 16 April 2004

Dangerous Liaisons

It is hard to know which was the more astonishing: the White House's endorsement of Ariel Sharon's ill-conceived peace plan, or Downing Street's decision to back it without hesitating for even the blink of an eye. Either way, the Israeli government's plans to retain settlements in the West Bank for itself and deny outright Palestinians' right of return should be rejected as a dangerous abrogation of the basis upon which negotiations for a peace deal in the region have aimed towards for so many years.

President Bush described the Sharon plan as both historic and courageous - but in truth it is neither of these, and nor is it likely to be accepted by any of the other parties involved. Based on Yasser Arafat's reaction yesterday, this plan will only be a recipe for further conflict.

Even Washington insiders are scratching their heads as to how Mr Sharon's proposal made it onto the table when the Israeli prime minister flew into Washington. One explanation is that Mr Bush's administration is so preoccupied with other matters, especially Iraq, that it failed to realise the implications of Mr Sharon's proposal. If so, that is no excuse. For 37 years the starting position for US negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians has been the borders of 1967, prior to the Six Day war. That position remained throughout the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan and Mr Bush's own father, as well as the Carter and Clinton administrations. Now Mr Bush declares they were wrong to do so, because it is "unrealistic" for Israel to withdraw from the land it occupies as a result.

Both leaders have something in common, other than their alliance of interests in the "war on terror". Mr Sharon is under scrutiny for a political corruption scandal back home, while Mr Bush is suffering a demanding investigation into the events of September 11 that has cast his administration in a poor light and reopened questions about his competence. The pair therefore have a lot to gain in terms of their respective domestic political positions from a deal. For Mr Sharon this allows him to, however briefly, arrive home in triumph, and offer a war-weary public the possibility of a pull-out from Gaza. For Mr Bush, it allows him to claim some sliver of tangible result, one that appeals to his conservative political base in the coming presidential election.

The outcome places the "road map" for a Middle East peace settlement in tatters, leaving little for the UN, the EU and Russia - the three other corners of the so-called "quartet" mediators - and gives nothing that Palestinian leaders or moderate Arab nations will want to accept.

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