RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday he would push on with plans for early elections despite bitter opposition from the Hamas government.You'd think that would be a pretty big story, but I believe it's been deliberately downplayed by the Bush administration, to deflect attention from the fact that Blair was asked to go there in reaction to the Iraq Study Group's report last week.
Blair said it was critical that the international community supported the moderate Abbas in the coming weeks.
The two leaders were meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah just hours after a truce took effect in Gaza following days of heavy fighting between forces loyal to Abbas and Hamas that pushed the impoverished strip to the brink of civil war.
Much of the reaction from "Fright Wing" of American politics, and in particular, the blogosphere, centered on the fact that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with our troubles in Iraq.
Granted, the connection would seem to be tenuous, perhaps more additive than causitive, but in point of fact, the entire inflammation in the Middle East is causing much of the uproar in Iraq and Afghanistan. Settling the Palestinian question, some form of truly autonomy and a seperate homeland, would go a long way to settling things down in general. Think of it as having the flu, with nausea and diarrhea. Taking Pepto won't cure the flu, but it will help you feel a little better and let your body rest so it can focus on the disease.
OK, so why play down this story? A few reasons spring to mind. First, of course, is that this was actually unilateral action by Tony Blair and had nothing to do with the ISG report. Possible. Not likely, but possible, in which case, Bush would have to play it down as nothing more than a desperate attempt on Blair's part to salvage some form of legacy (there's that word again) ahead of his forced resignation later in 2007.
Second, assuming he was asked by Bush to intervene, by downplaying the story, Bush can deflect the obvious questions about this being tied to the ISG report, and what other recommendations can we see taking shape shortly? Troop withdrawals? He's probably got another agenda he has to deal with at this point, what with the transition to a hostile Congress (point of fact: has any other President with a same-party Congress achieved so little in six years?), and a citizenry that's getting a little...antsy.
Third, and this works under either scenario, this entire venture gets to be viewed as Tony Blair's baby. Should it fail (and given the history of this region, there's every reason to believe it will), it would be credited/debited to him, not the Americans, even though we clearly have more to gain should he succeed (in which case, expect Bush to jump on the bandwagon and commandeer it).
Finally, American intervention in Palestine is not likely to improve relations between the two countries anytime soon, so long as Bush is President. He's viewed as far too hostile to the Muslim community in the region, and any envoy he sends (short of former Presidents Carter or Clinton) would be discounted, and likely ridiculed, for their efforts. Even Condoleeza Rice, who apparently would have Abbas' ear, is impotent at this point, given her recent comments regarding the UN resolution on Beit Hanoun incident. Since Abbas is under intense pressure from two sides, Hamas and Fatah, to maintain his governing coalition, it's vital that the US stay the hell out of this internal conflict.
Ergo, Blair makes sense as an envoy to speak for not only Europe (which has more sympathy for the Palestinians than we do) but also America. The subtext is how this is an outgrowth of the ISG report. Why it took him this long to directly involve himself in the matter is a settled question: he's likely been prevented before.