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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 18th, 2008 - 00:54:10

Dove in one hand, sword in the other
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 18, 2008, 00:10

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Those who scratched their heads wondering why the US President George W. Bush woke up one morning and decided to spend his last year in office working towards a Palestinian state can now be put out of their misery. Those more charitable among us burbled about Bush's anxiety over his legacy. The sceptics decided the Annapolis meeting and the great one's subsequent Middle East visit were nothing but PR stunts or photo-ops.

Yet others thought US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been whispering in his ear reminiscing on how the two-tier situation in Israel reminded her of her youth in the racially segregated south of America. However, recent days have been revealing.

It's true to say that most Arab leaders had to be dragged kicking and screaming to Annapolis in the knowledge that what awaited them was a damp squib, and, indeed, all that resulted was a vague commitment to bring into being a Palestinian state before the end of this year. Since, the Israelis have been merrily extending major colonies around occupied Jerusalem, raiding the West Bank town of Nablus and striking Gaza.

Then along comes Bush, who uncharacteristically ticks off Israel over its failure to dismantle "outposts" and even mentions the other "O" word. Admittedly, "occupation" isn't a noun that easily trips off the tongues of US officials let alone the big boss when related to Israel's presence on Palestinian land.

Turn of events

Now here's a funny turn of events. Just as uncharacteristically, the Israelis are not offended by Bush's new tone, and their prime minister, Ehud Olmert, actually agrees that the outposts are a "disgrace." Further, the Israeli newspapers are rather upbeat about the leader of the free world's visit. Why is that?

Could it be they've looked him in the eye and seen his heart, which briefly popped out onto his sleeve during the requisite visit to the Holocaust Memorial? In truth, if I were faced with the horrors depicted at Yad Vashem, my eyes would be damp too, but Bush's empathy appears to be selective.

There were no tears for the Palestinians, who were suffering yesterday, are still suffering today and who will be suffering tomorrow. It's commendable to cry for those who have passed but even more so to feel the pain of those still living, and especially if you happen to be someone with the power to make things right.

There is one thing you can't accuse Israelis of being. And that's stupid. Opinion columnists in Israel aren't screaming about Bush's apparently tougher line because they know he's actually on Israel's side, and the strong rhetoric was merely for Arab consumption.

The White House has immense leverage with Israel, which arguably wouldn't exist in its present form without US financial and military backing, yet apart from a few carefully chosen words, Bush chose not to use it with the result Mid-East peace is still a mirage.

Then apparently still on his quest for white doves and olive branches -- or roughly goes the official blurb -- the president heads for the Gulf, where, lo and behold, Israel/Palestine affairs take a back seat. Instead, he fires up his troops to complete their mission in Iraq by promising them a victorious place in history books yet to be written.

In the meantime,there had been an incident in the Straits of Hormuz. The US Navy accused Iranian patrol boats of coming too close to its warships, dropping white boxes in the water and to complete the picture it put out a video with a superimposed audio of a menacing voice threatening to blow them up.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The clash, as reported by the Navy, was a superb backdrop for the prime motive behind the president's whistle-stop tour: drumming up opposition to Tehran. Bush worked the incident to its fullest extent warning Iran that it faced serious consequences, and urging Gulf states to rally against their neighbour "before it's too late."

The confrontation was not only a remarkable coincidence, coinciding as it did with the pesident's visit, but according to Iranian statements, which they reinforced with their own video, it never happened. Instead, they say, there was a polite exchange between vessels. More recently, the Pentagon has backed down,suggesting the threatening voice might not have been Iranian and the white boxes were harmless.

Rightly concerned

While it's true that most regional governments are rightly concerned about Iran's possible nuclear ambitions and extended geopolitical influence, they don't want to see their own countries turned into a battleground. Indeed, in recent months they have reached out to Iran with an invitation to attend a GCC summit and a personal welcome to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his Haj pilgrimage.

For all Bush's efforts to turn the tide against Iran, I doubt the major players here will bite. I would also suspect the pesident's belligerent and confrontational attitude towards their neighbour is viewed as an embarrassment.

Nevertheless, these are exceptionally dangerous times. The US Navy admits it fired warning shots at Iranian boats in December. It's a tinder keg open to be ruthlessly exploited by anyone itching for war.

I'll leave you with three little words and a date -- Gulf of Tonkin 1964. Never heard of it? Then Google and weep!

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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