US makes two major Mideast moves

Announcements this week herald a reshaped region - but meet deep Arab skepticism

This week, the US made two bold moves that could begin to reframe Arab perceptions about its Middle East role:

• Washington unveiled the Israeli-Palestinian "road map" for peace, an ambitious blueprint for ending 31 months of violence and establishing a Palestinian state.

• The US announced that it will close down most of its military operations in Saudi Arabia - a thorn in the side of Muslims offended by the presence of "infidel" troops near Islam's holiest sites - and move them to Qatar.

Coming so soon after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the beginning of reconstruction efforts in Iraq, these two steps are welcomed by the US's Arab allies in the region. Arab leaders, painfully aware of how out of tune they are with their increasingly anti-American populations, are eager to show some gains for their close ties with the US.

But the US and its allies face an Arab public still deeply skeptical about American intentions in the region. Such attitudes will take time - and US follow-through on the Israeli-Palestinian road map - to change.

"The general feeling is, there will be new order, but not one which will serve the Arab people," says Joost Hiltermann, the Jordan based Middle East project director for the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG).

"The road map is an important step, but highly deficient really, and basically a watered-down version what could have been. The departure of the troops from Saudi Arabia meanwhile, is seen as symbolic. People here are very cynical."

The supposed gains of the US are illusory, say some analysts. Even the quick, low-casualty war in Iraq - and this week's shooting of demonstrators in Fallujah, Iraq - have only succeeded in alienating Arabs and injecting the region with a new surge of militant fundamentalism.

"What road? What vehicle? What justice? Its all nonsense and hypocrisy," says Samar Aloul, a young Palestinian refugee in Jordan. "How I wish I were wrong."

The unveiled road map, says Abdel Halem Qandel, editor in chief of Egypt's opposition Al-Araby newspaper: "...satisfies the maximum demands for Israelis and the minimum for the Palestinians. It tries to give the impression that there is a kind of justice somewhere," he says, "...but it is the same old story."

Others were even harsher in dismissing the road map, the unveiling of which coincided with the inauguration of new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who vowed to end attacks on Israelis. "The plan is a bribe," says Jamil Abu-Bakr, a leading member of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood Movement. "The Americans think the Arabs might forget the pain of war in Iraq and stop fighting the US or Israeli occupiers ... but this bribe does not impress us at all. We are only more angry."

Some experts, meanwhile, also view the move to pull 5,000 US troops out of Saudi Arabia by the end of the summer with cynical eyes. "It reduces America's dependence on Saudi Arabia ... and throws open the opportunity for Iraq to become America's favorite base in the region," defense analyst Paul Beaver told Reuters.

But cynicism isn't universal among regional analysts. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia some see this as progress, or at least an opportunity for it.

Prof. Abdel Monem Said, director of the al-Ahram Strategic Studies Center, a think tank in Cairo, says he is not holding his breath for any monumental sea change in the region, but nonetheless can't stop himself from feeling hopeful.

"There will always be those for whom anti-Americanism is a philosophy, and runs deeper than any move the Americans might make," he says. "Also, we have past experience of promises which ended up disappointing." But, he stresses, "We should wait and see the results of these moves before dismissing them. They sound good."

"I believe we as Arabs have a role to play in the future of the region beyond criticizing the US," adds Professor Said. "We have a duty to create the regional support on which to build a successful peace process. That's not the job of the US alone. It starts with us accepting responsibility."

David Dadonn, Israeli's ambassador to Jordan, and a former ambassador to Morocco, is also hopeful that positive change is on the way.

"Of course good can come of the current situation," he says. The US appears eager and ready to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, says the ambassador. "There is great anger at the US in the Arab world," he says, "and Arab leaders are saying, 'You say you are interested in liberation - so what about the Palestinians?' There is pressure on the US to act."

Israel, he says, is not worried about this pressure. On the contrary. "We don't even need US pressure at this point to remind us that we have to take real steps so as not to miss the opportunity at hand," he says.

"If [new Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Abu Mazen stops the terror, we will begin negotiations ... and once that happens I believe the Jordanians and Egyptians will return their ambassadors to Israel," says Dadonn. "Tunis, Morocco, Oman, and perhaps other countries in the region will also think about opening or reopening missions in Israel."

Meanwhile, Saudi political analyst Turad Al Amri, director of the Jeddah-based Saeed Al Amri Center for Strategic Studies, also allows room for optimism when assessing the recent announcement pertaining to his country. He dismisses arguments that the US troop deployment from the Kingdom is a concession to Osama bin Laden, and says rather that the move will deprive Al Qaeda's leader of a key propaganda weapon.

"Neither bin Laden nor anyone else can use this as an excuse for fighting America anymore," he says. "This could give credibility to the royal family and could strengthen the hand of those in the Kingdom trying to enact reforms in the face of the religious establishment."

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