Rain Check

King Abdullah’s snub of the president shows how far U.S.-Arab relations have declined.


“Today there is hatred of the Americans like never before in the region,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said on a visit to France on Tuesday.

It’s been a while since Arab opinion was with the U.S., of course, but there’s no question that events of late have sharpened the divide. Recent American iniquities include the United States’ unequivocal support of Sharon’s disengagement plan, its tacit support for Israel’s assassination of Hamas leaders Yassin and Rantisi, and its punitive siege of Fallujah. Mubarak said what King Abdullah of Jordan was surely thinking when he called off a scheduled meeting with President Bush in Washington this week. The U.S. is playing it cool, but continued displeasure in the Arab world could spell trouble for hopes of peace in Israel-Palestine and Iraq.

According to the New York Times, the Jordanian King said, “in deliberately cool tones,” that the meeting would hold “until discussions and deliberations are concluded with officials in the American administration to clarify the American position on the peace process and the final situation in the Palestinian territories, especially in light of the latest statements by officials in the American administration.” The meeting was expected to focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the situation in Iraq, and ways to enhance cooperation, specifically in the economic arena.

King Abdullah’s snub is clearly a reaction to Bush’s support, made explicit last week, for Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, essentially ratifying Israel’s claim to parts of the West Bank, and complicating Palestinian demands that refugees return to homes they fled in the years after the Jewish state was founded in 1948. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told reporters that Bush’s support for Sharon’s plan “kills the rights of the Palestinian people. We as Palestinians reject that. We cannot accept that. We reject it and we refuse it.”

The Bush administration is playing down Abdullah’s snub. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “We understand that there are some domestic issues involved here. And we respect King Abdullah’s decision to postpone the meeting for a couple weeks.”

(There are domestic issues, of course. Abdullah, generally on good terms with the U.S., was most certainly thinking of the majority of Jordanians — many of them Palestinian by origin — who are incensed at U.S. support for Israel and its occupation of Iraq.)

The White House is probably more concerned than it’s letting on. And if it isn’t, perhaps it should be. Abdullah is just one of many Arab leaders upset with Bush’s determination to back Sharon. Egyptian president Mubarak, who had met with Bush just last week, said Washington’s actions had provoked much anger in the Arab world. Given that Mubarak and Abdullah are generally considered “friendly” toward the U.S. — at least by the standards of the Middle East — the fact that they are coming down hard speaks to the level of animosity coming from the rest of the Arab world. Mubarak said:

“People have a feeling of injustice. What’s more, they see (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon acting as he pleases, without the Americans saying anything. He assassinates people who don’t have the planes and helicopters that he has. …

“The despair and feeling of injustice are not going to be limited to our region alone. American and Israeli interests will not be safe, not only in our region but anywhere in the world.”

The U.S. counts on Egypt and Jordan to keep the peace in the area, and to help with security in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Administration officials say that despite problems, they expect this help to continue.

The Arab League welcomed the cancellation of the meeting. A high-ranking official told United Press International that “the cancellation of the meeting expresses the state of high anger prevailing in the Arab world over Bush’s endorsement of Israeli stances.” The official said if King Abdullah had “acted differently, he would have embarrassed the Arab peoples and challenged their national sentiments.”

James Zogby, in an op-ed in the Jordan Times, explains why Palestinians are so upset by Sharon’s plan. He suggests that Bush’s support and his stated support of a “free, independent, sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state” are fundamentally at odds with one another:

“At the same time, reading Sharon’s plan for “disengagement” also raises serious questions about the “vision” of a “sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state”. In Sharon’s plan, Gaza will be totally isolated and Palestinian control will be established over only small parts of the West Bank. The remaining portions of “Judea and Samaria” (as the areas are referred to in Sharon’s plan) and all of “Greater Jerusalem” will, for all intents and purposes, be annexed by proposed new highways and infrastructure. …

In the face of this, to continue to maintain a commitment to a “peace process” or a just “two-state solution” is at best a cruel joke. …

But whether cruel jokes or contentless visions, that was what was offered up last week. Calling “occupied Iraq” a “free Iraq defended by American forces” and calling the occupied and dismembered West Bank and Gaza a future “sovereign Palestine” doesn’t pass, what my mother would call, “the smell test”. But these are the realities behind the president’s visions. And despite all this, these are the visions that he continues to maintain are the goals of his administration.”

The assassination of Hamas’ leader Rantisi certainly does not inspire good will toward the U.S. Hamas is a huge religious movement with tens of thousands of supporters in Palestinian society. Al-Jazeera notes:

“The murder of al-Rantisi is likely to further deepen Palestinian frustration and sense of anger. Moreover, the brazen espousal by the Bush administration of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s expansionistic designs in the West Bank will make the powder keg even more volatile.”

Although the murder of the Hamas chief was carried out by Israel and not provoked by the U.S., there could, nonetheless, be a backlash toward Americans. Hassan A. Barari writes in the Jordan Times that Palestinians will view Bush’s support of Israeli disengagement plan as support for acts of violence, like the assassination of Rantisi:

“The ugly assassination of Hamas leader Abdelaziz Rantisi is further proof that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government has been systematically and methodologically killing any chance for the peace process to be resumed. …

Sharon feels powerful after he received the backing of President George Bush last week regarding his plan. More importantly, Sharon is convinced that he managed to fundamentally change the American approach to the peace process. …

Amid the unremitting lack of sophistication on Bush’s part in dealing with the peace process and his offensive and ill-timed statement, one cannot help but conclude that the current American administration is part of the problem and is not qualified to be an honest broker in the Middle East peace process. Sharon must have felt that he was given a free hand to continue his policy of sabotaging the peace process and liquidating Palestinian leaders.”