WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- If peace in the Middle East is to be given half a chance, it is imperative that President George W. Bush oppose Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new initiative meant to double the number of Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights within the next three years. That is, if the administration intends to have any friends left in the Middle East, or still cares about trying to win their hearts and minds.
Sharon's year-end surprise pronouncement on the new settlements comes on the heels of his Herzliya speech where he threatened unilateral moves if agreement with the Palestinians on the all-but-dead peace talks failed to inch ahead in the months to come. The move also follows the prime minister's intention to proceed with the building of the highly controversial barrier separating Israel from the West Bank and which cuts across a great swathe of Palestinian lands. The Palestinians call the barrier a wall while Israel says it's a fence.
What is particularly disturbing is that Sharon's decision comes shortly after Syrian President Bashar Assad indicated interest in resuming peace talks with Israel. And although Israeli government officials insist the plan was initiated long before Assad showed his readiness to resume negotiations, there is little room for doubt that the timing is indeed terrible.
Assad's overture to negotiate was an encouraging sign, particularly as it comes after President Bush signed into law the Syria Accountability Act earlier in December. The Act was in part meant to entice Syria into distancing itself from "terrorist" groups. Sharon's aim to increase Israeli settlers in the Golan takes away any carrots that could have been offered to bring Assad to the peace table and will only serve to empower Syria's hardliners.
The issue of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day Arab-Israeli War, and the theatre of some of the most intense fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur, or the October or Ramadan War as it is called in the Arab world, now adds more oil to the ever-burning Middle East fire.
Syria -- the only militarily significant Arab country bordering Israel and still in a state of war with Israel -- demands the return of the Golan as a pre-requisite to any eventual peace deal with the Jewish state. Both Egypt and Jordan have signed peace accords with Israel. Lebanon, the remaining Arab state to border Israel and with which no peace treaty exists is in no position, militarily, to threaten Israel.
For Israel, the only menace emanating across its northern border with Lebanon comes from Hezbollah, the Shiite militia who receives part of its financial and military backing from Iran and partially from Syria. Hezbollah, which figures prominently on the U.S. State Department's terrorist list, continues to claim an area where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel converge and is known as the Shebaa Farms, and which Israel occupies, as Lebanese territory. The Shebaa Farms are adjacent to the Golan Heights.
Last March's American invasion of Iraq was regarded by many in the Middle East with great suspicion. This is a part of the world where U.S. foreign policy is always scrutinized for potential pro-Israeli bias, whether it exists or not, and where conspiracy theories abound. Iraq's invasion was viewed by many people from all walks of life as being carried out for the benefit of Israel.
Iraq, during Saddam's reign, had the strongest military in the Arab world, and was seen as the last remaining threat to Israel. Saddam had targeted his Scud rockets at Israel during the previous Gulf War in 1990-91 that erupted as a result of his invasion of Kuwait. Although his biological and chemical weapons have yet to be found, it was feared -- particularly in Israel -- that Iraq could arm its missiles with bio, chemical or even nuclear warheads.
As the United States struggles to rebuild Iraq, and with it dwindling Arab and Muslim trust, neither of which are easy tasks by any means, Sharon's Golan initiative could not come at a worst time for the Bush administration.
Adding to Bush's quandary is the fact that 2004 ushers in an election year and any response to Sharon's announcement is likely to have negative side effects. Bush can either upset the Jewish vote and rock the Christian fundamentalist vote which is passionately pro-Israeli; or he can keep silent and choose to anger and further alienate the Arab-Muslim street and in the process provide greater fodder to al-Qaida recruiters. This, as the country remains in a heightened state of terror alert at code orange, does not deem terribly well for the start of a new year when peace is traditionally wished upon mankind.