April 12, 2004

April 12, 2004 | WebMemo on Middle East

Three Middle East Summits

President George Bush today meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in the first of three summits with Middle Eastern leaders over the next ten days. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due at the White House on April 14, and Jordan's King Abdallah follows him on April 21. These summits come against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation in Iraq, but each meeting is likely to focus primarily on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which also has deteriorated since the breakdown of the Oslo peace negotiations and the onset of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000. The President has the opportunity to leverage Israel's proposed withdrawal from Gaza to restart the stalled peace process; though the diplomacy will be difficult, he should attempt to achieve this end.

 

Sharon's proposal-that Israel unilaterally withdraw from all 17 Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip-will be on the agenda of all three summits. This surprising initiative, announced last December, is a radical and risky move in the midst of continued diplomatic stalemate with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The Israeli Prime Minister has opted to pursue a unilateral withdrawal because he, understandably, has concluded that Israel does not have a reliable Palestinian partner for peace. Arafat has sabotaged every agreement that he has made with Israel to date and cannot be trusted in any future negotiations.

 

The challenge for the Bush Administration is to transform the withdrawal-which could plunge Gaza into anarchy and strengthen the power of Hamas, an Islamic extremist terrorist organization-into a stepping-stone towards renewed negotiations under the road map peace plan to end Palestinian terrorism. To stabilize the situation in Gaza, the United States needs to work closely with Egypt, which can play a much stronger role in restraining Palestinian terrorism.

 

The Mubarak Summit

Egyptian President Mubarak has rejected Israel's tentative requests to fill the power vacuum in Gaza with Egyptian troops, but he has agreed to train and advise Palestinian security forces to help them maintain order and restrain terrorism after the Israeli withdrawal. This is start, but it is not enough. Merely assisting the Palestinian security forces will not necessarily help because they remain under the control of Arafat, who remains wedded to terrorism against Israelis.

 

President Bush should press the Egyptians to help marginalize Arafat and build a Palestinian Authority that is untainted by terrorism and corruption. The President should also stress that the development of a Hamas-dominated Gaza mini-state is not in Egypt's national interests. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement outlawed in Egypt due to its past attempts to overthrow the state. If Hamas takes control of Gaza, it will undoubtedly attempt to export Islamic extremism into Egypt, as well as terrorism into Israel.

 

The President should also urge the Egyptians to do more combat arms smuggling operations that have moved increasingly dangerous weapons and military supplies-including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles-across Egypt's border into Gaza. The Israelis have found at least 70 tunnels in the last ten years. Some of these could not have been built without the passive acquiescence-if not the active cooperation-of Egyptian officials. Cairo claims that it  does not condone the tunnels and can do little more to stop the smuggling. President Bush should insist that the Egyptians redouble their efforts to halt smuggling, and he should offer American technical assistance in finding and destroying the tunnels.

 

Another topic for discussion at the Mubarak summit will be the Bush Administration's Greater Middle East Initiative, slated to be unveiled at the G-8 summit in June. The Egyptians, like many Arab allies of the United States, fear that calls from the West for rapid democratic reforms will lead to political instability. Cairo convened a conference of hundreds of Arab human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations in Alexandria last month to issue a declaration on political, economic, and social reforms-and partially to diplomatically preempt the Greater Middle East Initiative. While this declaration stressed educational reforms, equality for women, and free market economic reforms, it also called for caution on democratic reforms

 

President Bush should welcome the Egyptian initiative and reassure Mubarak that America's push for democracy will not threaten its Arab allies. But the President should also stress that Egypt's cautious economic reforms have not gone far enough. He should encourage Cairo to resume long-stalled efforts to privatize state enterprises, encourage foreign investment, and free the Egyptian people to participate in a market-driven economy.

 

The Sharon Summit

Bush's summit with Sharon on April 14 may determine the fate of Sharon's proposed withdrawal from Gaza. The beleaguered Israeli leader-now facing possible indictment for bribery in a real estate scandal-seeks Bush's endorsement for his withdrawal plan to help sway his own cabinet and the Likud Party, both of which oppose it. Because he does not trust the Palestinians to deliver on possible concessions for withdrawal, Sharon hopes instead to extract concessions from Washington. He also seeks, reportedly, an American endorsement of both a security fence that would block the infiltration of Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank and Israel's permanent retention of several large settlements in the West Bank.

 

The President will likely counter with a push for a freeze on new settlements, the immediate dismantling of unapproved settler outposts, and the removal of four small settlements in the northern part of the West Bank, all to demonstrate that the "Gaza First" withdrawal is not really "Gaza Last." Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states will help stabilize Gaza only if they are assured that this is a step towards a final settlement; they have no interest in merely helping Israel consolidate control over the West Bank.

 

The President needs to stress to Sharon that a Gaza withdrawal can be a good prelude to negotiations but cannot, by itself, substitute for negotiations. Left alone, Gaza will only fester, descend into Islamic extremism, and become a haven for increasingly dangerous Palestinian terrorism.

 

The Abdallah Summit

The President's April 21 summit with Jordan's King Abdallah is likely to focus on Iraq as well as Arab-Israeli issues. Jordan shares a long, permeable border with Iraq and is directly threatened by Iraqi instability. The President should call for increased Jordanian cooperation in halting the movement of Islamic extremists from Jordan into Iraq and greater intelligence-sharing on the Ba'athist forces and Islamic terrorists inside Iraq that pose a threat to both countries. Jordan already has agreed to help train Iraqi military and internal security forces. The President should also explore the possibility that Jordan could dispatch advisers to Iraqi institutions or even contribute troops to help stabilize the country.

 

King Abdallah, like President Mubarak, will seek American assurances that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza does not mean an end to peace negotiations. As with the previous two summits, the challenge for the President will be to use the Israeli withdrawal as leverage for the resumption of serious negotiations in the future, hopefully after Yasser Arafat is no longer in a position to veto a genuine peace settlement.

James Phillips is Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy