No wonder we are seen as colonial powers

The Palestinians and Iraqis will be absent, their views unheard, their advice uncalled
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The Independent Online

This week is Middle East week in Washington. On Monday, President Hosni Mubarak was at President Bush's ranch to discuss Middle East peace and democracy. Yesterday Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, came to Washington to get Bush to back his plans for unilateral disengagement from Gaza. Tomorrow will be Prime Minister Tony Blair's turn and, bringing up the rear, early next week King Abdullah of Jordan comes to town.

And what do all these friends and allies of America have in common? No, it's not just that Bush needs to show he's getting somewhere in the Middle East to sell to his domestic public. It is that not one of his visitors come from the two countries under discussion - Iraq and Palestine.

Think of it. All week long the President of the US will discuss with his guests, including our own prime minister, what to do about Palestine, its borders and the right of return of its diaspora. And when Bush is not discussing that, he will be talking of how best to settle Iraq before the handover on 30 June. Yet in these talks, the Palestinians and the Iraqis will be entirely absent, their views unheard, their advice uncalled for. And we wonder why most of the Middle East sees us as "neo-colonialists"?

In fact, it's worse than that. Sharon has come to Washington with a plan that specifically excludes negotiation with, or participation by, the Palestinians. The object is for Israel to disengage from settlements in Gaza and reconsolidate around more defensible borders that include most of the main Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians will be left with a disjointed pattern of land that ensures they can represent no threat to the future. As for the Road Map for Peace which Bush still holds to, that can be accepted in principle because it no longer has any validity in practice.

But then, if you consider it, the Iraqis don't have much more part in the discussion about the future of Iraq either, for all that the occupation is supposed to be in their name. Again and again, Bush repeats the mantra that the handover of sovereignty is sacrosanct, as if this is some kind of act of imperial beneficence. It isn't. The real deadline is for elections, due by the end of this year or next January at the latest. This is the handover that the Shia and most other Iraqis have wanted. The 30 June handover is an intermediate stage done largely to suit the US electoral timetable, with a governing council picked by the occupying forces and a security set up which Iraqis are in no position to take on.

Of course, you can argue that in many ways the Arabs have brought this upon themselves. And all through the Middle East, you will now find a new generation who will argue exactly this: that for too long the Arabs have blamed the West for their woes and the situation in Palestine for their anger. They will never progress so long as they fail to take the future in their own hands.

If you want to see the failings, just look at President Mubarak and King Abdullah's visits to Washington. These are the two countries which recognise Israel and can be brought to heel by the US on whom they depend. When push comes to shove, they will betray the Palestinian cause as they have so often in the past. But they are also the two countries raising the greatest obstacles to US hopes of spreading democracy in the Middle East. Their regimes couldn't survive it. So if Washington wants their support on Palestine and Iraq, it must sacrifice democracy - or be content to leave it just as a form of words - and the other way round.

So the marginalisation of the Arabs in their own history goes on. It is not that the West can be held solely responsible for the woes of the Middle East. It is that, in meddling in the area, it is always following an agenda of its own that has nothing to do with the interests of the population. If President Bush was as really concerned with the plight of the Iraqi people, as he kept repeating in his statement on Tuesday night, then why is he insisting on a 30 June deadline that has nothing to do with their needs but everything to do with his. What else other than his electoral timescale explains the US decision to seek Muqtada Sadr, dead or alive, when to most Iraqis it is a confrontation that is neither necessary nor beneficial.

And what is Sharon doing if it is not to use this moment both to put maximum pressure on Bush when the American president is at his weakest at the same time as driving forward a plan that could lift the Israeli prime minister out of his difficulties with the law over allegations of bribery and electoral impropriety. To blame the lack of consultation with the Palestinians on Yasser Arafat is just specious. It wouldn't make any difference if Arafat were Mandela reborn, the Likud government would find ways of avoiding negotiations with an enemy it prefers broken and divided.

There is a way to build constructive relations with the Middle East and to support those forces that want change there. The start should be to listen to them instead of telling them yet again what we think is in their interests.