The Bush administration, seeing a window of opportunity opened up by Saddam Hussein's fall and the appointment of a reformist Palestinian prime minister, is set to make a major push for peace between Arabs and Israel. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Israel for talks with both sides on 10 May. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, that's just part of Bush's strategy to change the Middle East.
Washington, 10 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell set to make his first visit to Israel in more than a year, President George W. Bush unveiled plans for a Middle East free-trade pact aimed at promoting liberty and prosperity across the region.
In what officials called a major speech just hours before Powell was due to fly to Israel on 9 May to promote a new peace plan with the Palestinians, Bush offered a free trade deal for Arab nations that overcome autocracy and embrace democracy.
Bush told students at the University of South Carolina that the desire for liberty around the Muslim world is growing. The president said without freedom, the Muslim world will continue to languish in poverty that will breed extremism.
"The combined GDP of all Arab countries is smaller than that of Spain," he said. "Their peoples have less access to the Internet than the people of sub-Saharan Africa. The Arab world has a great cultural tradition but is largely missing out on the economic progress of our time."
Bush said that a free-trade zone to promote security and prosperity could be set up between America and Arab states that carry out government reforms, fight corruption and terrorism, protect property and women's rights, and develop good business practices.
He said the initiative could be in place within a decade, provided that peace can be reached between Palestinians and Israelis.
Bush said the U.S. could help countries that carry out the reforms to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and to negotiate bilateral investment and trade treaties.
Powell, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas this weekend, probably discussed conditions for joining the trade pact at a World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan next month.
Bush's idea may be welcomed in a region rife with sagging economies and autocratic governments. For years, Washington has been under pressure from Saudi Arabia to help Riyadh join the WTO. Egypt, a big beneficiary of U.S. aid, also has lobbied Washington for a free trade pact, which generally lower, and in some cases, eliminate tariffs on exports and imports.
David Makovsky is a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute, a think tank in the U.S. capital. Asked about Bush's proposal, he said:
"I think it's an interesting idea. It's a way to reach out to the peoples of the Middle East and say, 'You may view the United States as focused primarily on threat because of the action in Iraq, but it's also interested in opportunities for you, the people.' And I think it's a novel way to reach out."
Makovsky says the idea's effectiveness will depend on the country. He says that an existing free-trade pact with Jordan is already yielding positive results and that a deal could be reached with Morocco by the end of this year.
The Bush administration believes there is a window of opportunity to help shape the future of the Middle East. As Powell told a briefing yesterday at the State Department:
"I'm anxious to see if we cannot make progress as rapidly as possible and take advantage of the new strategic situation created by the end of the regime in Baghdad and the new strategic situation created by the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister and the presentation of the road map."
But whether Bush's free trade initiative will help Powell's latest bid to revive the peace process is far from clear.
The road map, which sets out reciprocal steps to reach peace and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, is already facing obstacles. While Palestinians say they have accepted it, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has problems with the plan.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said in Paris on 9 May that little will come of Powell's trip because he believes Sharon will wait until he meets with Bush in Washington on 20 May before making any decision on the road map. Shaath accused Sharon of sabotaging Powell's trip.
Israel objects to its reciprocal steps by each side and to any timetable for a state. Sharon wants Abbas to crack down on militants before he makes any concessions, and his right-wing cabinet also includes parties opposed to Palestinian sovereignty.
In his speech, Bush said all sides have responsibilities and that Israel must take steps to ease the suffering of Palestinians. He added: "If the Palestinian people take concrete steps to crack down on terror, continue on a path of peace, reform, and democracy, they and all the world will see the flag of Palestine raised over a free and independent nation."
Bush continued: "And as progress is made toward peace, Israel must stop settlement activity in the occupied territories. Arab nations must fight terror in all forms and recognize and state the obvious once and for all: Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors."
But Abbas faces a dilemma. Palestinian officials say they cannot stifle what has been a "popular resistance" against Israel while its troops occupy their towns in the wake of a 31-month-long uprising. Moreover, analysts says Abbas has little chance of carrying out a major crackdown because it would risk sparking a civil war with militants who oppose the road map and have vowed to carry on with attacks against Israelis.
The emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, told reporters at the State Department that the road map will be tough to implement.
"Regarding the road map, we believe it is a good proposal," al-Thani said. "It is accepted by the Palestinians but unlike what the media is trying to portray, we don't believe that this is going to be easy to achieve. Sacrifices must be made by all sides in order for peace to be achieved."
Abbas rose to power partly as a result of demands from Bush, who says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is irreparably tainted by terror.
Last June, Bush said no progress could be made on peace with Arafat still in control, effectively forcing Palestinians to find a new leader. Abbas recently denounced terrorism "in all its forms" -- something Arafat has never told his fellow Palestinians. The statement by Abbas prompted Bush to call him "a man I can work with."
But Arafat refuses to move aside. His influence on Abbas's new cabinet is being singled out by some analysts as possibly undermining the road map. They say Arafat still has control of some Palestinian security units, which continue to carry out suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, and that several Arafat loyalists hold key ministries.
Of Abbas and Arafat, analyst Makovsky of the Washington Institute said: "It's like two people in a row boat rowing their oars in the opposite direction, and one of the guys [Arafat] is shooting a hole in the boat. That's the hardest part."
Diplomats say Israel and Washington are pressuring the European Union to shun Arafat during a high-level trip to the Middle East next week. But EU leaders appear set to seek some way to meet with Arafat, whom they say still retains considerable power.
As for Israel, Sharon has recently appeared conciliatory, offering to engage in unconditional peace talks with long-time foe Syria and conceding that Israel may have to scale back its settlements in Arab areas to achieve peace.
But Sharon wants Abbas to disarm and jail militants and enforce a long period of calm before Israel pulls back its forces or starts to dismantle Jewish settlements.