National Commentary

Helen Thomas: U.S. Muddles Along in Mideast

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has a mess on its hands in the Middle East, due to its inept policies in Iraq and Palestine. As the president continues to muddle along, Congress and the American people remain incredibly mute, marking time.

Real time for Congress is September when Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, is due to give a definitive report on the progress of the war there.

The critical time for many people is 2009 when a new president may come to the rescue.

The invasion and unprovoked occupation of Iraq is now in its fifth year and is projected by some generals to last for 10 more years.

The perennial Palestinian dispute has become more explosive through sheer neglect. President Bush brags that he is the only president who has proposed an independent Palestinian state — but he has done little to achieve his goal. And his unabashed pro-Israeli approach has made compromise difficult — to put it mildly.

A couple of months before Bush decided to implement his unilateral agenda by attacking Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein in 2003, an Arab diplomat told me that the president would be putting his finger in a hornet’s nest if he pursued his aggressive goals in the region.

That prediction has come through in spades. Thousands of Iraqis and Americans are dead; thousands more wounded and some 2 million Iraqis have fled to seek refuge in Syria and Jordan. Both countries have been kind enough to set up camps for them.

What a tragedy we have with this war to nowhere.

The Palestinian civil strife was intensified with the brutal ousting of the Fatah forces from Gaza by the more militant Hamas.

Bush keeps touting his desire to spread democracy in the Arab world, yet last year when Hamas won a majority of seats in the legislative council — fair and square, according to the U.N. observer team — the administration refused to recognize the election results.

What’s more, the U.S. cut off all financial aid to Gaza and imposed tight political and economic restrictions on the Palestinians.

That was a strange way to promote democracy. The U.S. and the Western powers have now resumed aid to the pro-Western government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to bolster the Fatah forces against Hamas.

Bush also keeps insisting that the Palestinians have to recognize Israel but he has never urged Israel to return to its pre-1967 war borders.

So the Palestinians are right to ask: Which Israel are they supposed to recognize? The one with new settlements on the West Bank and walls built on Palestinian land?

White House press secretary Tony Snow set conditions for U.S acceptance of the Hamas in a Palestinian government, declaring it has to release the Israelis it holds in captivity and to accept the existence of Israel.

All that has become moot with the defeat of the Fatah forces in Gaza by the Hamas. Abbas promptly ejected Hamas cabinet members from the West Bank government, and the U.S. rewarded him with an infusion of $40 million in aid. Israel also eased up on Palestinian checkpoints.

The moves left the Hamas — now in control of Gaza — high and dry except for some humanitarian aid.

Whether in Iraq or Palestine, administration officials tag as a "terrorist" anyone opposing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Snow denounced Hamas, saying that members of that group have been "slaughtering the opposition "in the streets."

There is no question that the U.S. approach to the region has radicalized the Arabs. On June 14, The Washington Post quoted Alvaro de Soto, the United Nation’s former top Middle East envoy, as sharply criticizing U.S. and Israeli efforts to isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Before retiring last month he filed a confidential report accusing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of "hijacking" efforts of former U.S. envoy James D. Wolfensohn to negotiate an agreement to provide greater freedom of movement for civilians in Gaza and the West Bank.

DeSoto also said the U.S. "clearly pushed for confrontation" between Fatah and the Hamas. He quoted an unnamed U.S. representative as saying: "I like this violence. . . it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas."

U.S. officials may soon long for the good old days when the late PLO chief Yasser Arafat was in power. The demonized Arafat made many diplomatic concessions and signed several peace accords, but Bush refused to ever meet with him before his death in 2004.


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