Posted on November 30, 1998 in Washington Watch

During the next month the Middle East will host a number of prominent American political leaders. Some of these visits could play an important role in reshaping the U.S. discussion of the Middle East conflict.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush are separately touring the region with stops in Egypt and several Gulf States.

Donna Shalala, the Secretary of Health and Human Services will soon be in Lebanon on an official visit. Shalala, the highest ranking Arab American in government, will be leading a delegation on a visit which the White House has described as “underscoring the importance the United States attaches to the U.S-Lebanon partnership”.

Clearly those who follow U.S.-Lebanon ties should note this language. In just a few years, the U.S.-Lebanon relationship has moved from a friendly, but strained one, characterized by a travel ban, to what is now called a “partnership”.

Later this week the Republican Governor of Texas, George W. Bush, will visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Three other Republican governors (Marc Racicot of Montana, Paul Celluci of Massachusetts and Mike Leavitt of Utah) will join Bush. The governors’ visit is being cosponsored by the National Jewish Coalition (an extremely pro-Israel Jewish Republican organization) and the Republican Governors association.

G.W. Bush, son of the former President George Bush, is currently in Egypt with his father. He will join the other governors in Israel later this week.

G.W. Bush is not an ordinary governor and this is not being viewed as an ordinary visit, since there are high expectations that Bush will seek the Republican nomination for President in 2000. As a result, his every move draws close scrutiny.

This is Bush’s first foreign visit since his reelection as Texas governor. His choice of Israel is intriguing. But even more interesting are the details of the visit. The fact the he has joined his father in Egypt makes clear their close relationship. The individuals with whom Bush and the other governors will meet are also interesting. The meetings include: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian Authority officials.

The efforts to balance the trip, at least on paper, could be positive. The current drift of the Republican Party in an extremist pro-Israel direction has been a real concern. The passing of Newt Gingrich from a Republican leadership role and the open rift between the more ideological congressional Republicans and the more pragmatic Republican governors could signal a check on the Republican drift.

If G.W. Bush is, like his father, an old-line pragmatic business oriented Republican, this could be a positive development and his involvement in the party’s internal policy debate would be welcomed by Arab American Republicans.

As a result, Bush’s visit will be followed closely both for signals he sends and the balance he displays.

Two weeks later, on December 14, President Clinton travels to Gaza in order to address a meeting of the Palestine National Council and other Palestinian leaders. There is some dispute about this meeting. Israel’s view that the meeting must result in a two-thirds vote to formally repudiate the Palestinian Covenant is not shared by either the United States or the Palestinian Authority. The United States and Palestinian Authority view the charter as already having been altered and see this meeting as more generally witnessing or reaffirming this fact.

The business of the covenant aside, the importance of the visit by the President and the First Lady can hardly be reduced to this act. An official visit by a U.S. President to Gaza is filled with both historical significance and opportunity.

While the visit itself will not constitute U.S. recognition of Palestinian statehood, it indicates that such recognition is, at this point, a matter of technicalities and timing.
More importantly the President’s visit will open up Palestine to a huge American audience. His visit and speech will shine a light on the Palestinian experience and reality. Each place visited by the President and First Lady will be seen by Americans who will have their view of Palestinians changed in the process.
In the game of politics where the rules dictate that only small steps be taken, this represents the possibility of a giant step forward.

It will be important to see not only what the U.S. visitors do, but also what the President says–what recognition he gives to the Palestinian past and to Palestinian aspirations for the future.

At the end of this month, having been able to assess the details of each of these visits, we’ll be in a better position to determine what their impact will be on the internal U.S. policy debate–but it appears that the Untied States attitude toward Lebanon, the Republican Party’s treatment of Arab concerns and official U.S. policy toward Palestinian rights may be advancing.

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