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Paralysis in the Middle East

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Muhammad Odeh, a local Palestinian Hamas leader in Ramallah was assassinated by masked gunmen the same day US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, was there visiting with President Mahmoud Abbas. It was probably a small token of affection offered to please the visiting dignitary; a sacrifice at the altar of peace. Clashes between Hamas and Fatah left a dozen people dead and over a 100 wounded in the past week. It is a clear indication of how deeply divided Palestinians have grown over the past few months.

Fatah's patience had run out. Abbas declared that he had reached a dead end in negotiations with Hamas over a national unity government. He threatened to use his constitutional powers to dissolve the parliament and the current government. But the current constitution does not give him such powers. No problem. This is the Middle East and if he can get the US to consent to it he'll do it any way. I think the Bush administration has had enough of negotiations in the Middle East to form "unity" governments whether it is in Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine. The same story is happening in all of these newborn democracies; they're all engaged in violent ways to resolve their power struggles and political differences.

This is a clear manifestation of Bush's policy in the Middle East. His famous words last month declared clearly that "for decades we pursued policies of stability in the Middle East and like a mirage they did not lead to peace."

Dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are more stable and peaceful in nature. But if Bush is determined to go on with his democracy project then instability is bound to reach these countries also.

The idea that democracies in the Middle East are peaceful in nature is a fallacy; Lebanon and Israel are two democracies that dueled to death over the summer. If people knew the nature of Arabs they will realize that each one wants to be a leader of his own people. A capitalist democracy modeled after the US will only inflame power struggles and sectarian passions in the Middle East. A genuine social democracy that offers free healthcare and education to its people, like most European nations do, has a chance of flourishing in the Middle East.

The Bush administration has dug itself a black hole in that part of the world. If "denial" describes its mindset, as journalist Bob Woodward wrote in his latest book, then Paralysis has become the state of politics in that region. Such paralysis is most evident in Palestinian politics. Hamas won the elections, formed a government and then sat under siege for the past 7 months. The Palestinian economy has been virtually wiped out and one has to admire Hamas's endurance but feel so much pity for the victimized general population of the occupied territories.

Hamas agreed to a unity government with Fatah, based on the "prisoners' document", which calls for recognizing Israel and a Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders. Abbas met with Bush a couple of weeks ago in New York and it seems like Bush vetoed the agreement. Everything fell apart when Abbas got home and like he said negotiations were back to "square one." The US wants Hamas to renounce violence and recognize the legitimacy of all previous accords between the PLO and Israel.

Such accords were nullified by successive Israeli governments starting with Netanyahu in 1996 and ending with Sharon and Olmert. How could the US ask Hamas to recognize accords renounced and nullified by Israel? It is a trap that leaves Hamas no choice but to go into conflict with Fatah and Abbas.

Most Palestinians will trust Hamas to negotiate with Israel as Fatah had proven its willingness to give the store away for the personal benefit of its rich leaders. That's why the US and Israel prefer to negotiate with Fatah, and will continue their financial stranglehold over the Hamas government till it collapses under the weight of the starving man in the street. Hamas and Fatah are locked into a waltz of death and there is no way out.

But such gridlock, confined to Washington in the past, has traveled to the Middle East and has become the hallmark of politics there. Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, and his Kadima Party have a 22% approval rating and the government has lost its disengagement mandate. Olmert is in no position to even appear as if he is giving anything to the Palestinians. Cracks in his coalition may widen and then his government would suddenly collapse.

The Taliban is staging a comeback in Afghanistan and wherever you look in the Muslim world there are grievances and injustices. Most are committed by Muslims against Muslims such as deprivation of basic human rights and wholesale robberies of the wealth of nations. Nothing is moving forward.

The problem is that the average American voter has very little knowledge or interest in the region. Polls have shown that almost 75% of Americans don't know where Israel is and so most of them can not connect the direct relationship between the misery of Palestinians and the threat to their national security. They will argue forever that Arabs and Israelis want to fight with each other all the time, as if America had nothing to do with it.

In the large political landscape of America, the Palestinian "problem" is like a pimple on the ass of an elephant. Everyone in the world tries to tell the elephant (Bush and the Republicans) that this pimple has to be squeezed before it turns into a tumor, which can kill the elephant. However, the Bush administration is only concerned in chasing the flies off that pimple. Bin Laden used the Palestinian pimple as one of the reasons for attacking America and Al-Qaida continues using it to attract more recruits.

The US is the only power that can squeeze this pimple and break the stalemate. It can do that through direct negotiations with Iran and Syria. But Bush is pursuing a path of "victory" and he still hangs on to the idea that decisive win-lose military solutions are possible, even after the failed experience with Hizbullah.

Secretary Rice's visit to the Middle East was in response to domestic political pressures ahead of the elections to combat charges of incompetence from the Democrats. It has little to do with pursuing peace in the Middle East. The world is in dire need of courageous leaders in Washington to break this vicious paralysis.
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Neal AbuNab is a Michigan-based author of "The War on Terror and Democracy"- available on Amazon.com. He is a commentator on Arab and Muslim affairs and he can be reached at: www.IslamPalestineBlogger.com
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