There was an hilarious piece in the Washington Post on Sunday, under the plaintive headline, "Why Did Bush Take My Job?" The author was Saeb Erekat, and the job he claims Bush has taken from him is "senior Palestinian negotiator" with the Israelis. The other day, speaking in support of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, President Bush stated the obvious: it was "unrealistic" to expect a return to the armistice lines of 1949, and there's no point wasting time discussing the Palestinian "right of return" to what's now Israel, because it's never going to happen.
But this shift in favour of the "realities on the ground" sent "moderate Arab opinion" into a tizzy. Returning from a visit to America, Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, dropped in on Jacques Chirac in Paris. "Today there is hatred of the Americans like never before," he told Le Monde. And, in what sounded suspiciously like a threat, Mubarak added: "American and Israeli interests will not be safe, not only in our region, but anywhere in the world." Did he mention that when he was back at the ranch with Bush?
And that's a guy American taxpayers give $2 billion a year to. In return for which, they get Mohammed Atta flying through the office window and vile state-funded Egyptian media that license anti-Americanism as a safety valve for disaffection that might otherwise be targeted more locally. Thanks a bunch, Hosni. The Guardian reported this as a "damaging rebuff to President George Bush's policies", though it's difficult to conceive of anything less "damaging" to Bush than being insulted by some third-rate Arab strongman dependent on US aid.
Now Mr Erekat has joined the chorus. "Why did Bush take my job?" To be honest, I'd forgotten whether or not Mr Erekat currently held it. Periodically he resigns from Arafat's cabinet for some reason or another, but quietly returns to his post a couple of months later - "senior Palestinian negotiator" being the Palestinian equivalent of those ancient Cabinet titles Tony Blair can never quite get rid of.
Edward Heath, in his time as Lord Privy Seal, was once addressed by some foreign dignitary as "Lord Heath" and famously responded that he was neither a lord nor a privy nor a seal. The "senior Palestinian negotiator" is not "senior", speaks for no viable faction within either the dignified (Arafatist) or efficient (Hamas) parts of the Palestinian Authority, and hasn't negotiated anything in a decade.
He last resigned last summer, after Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, went off to negotiate with Ariel Sharon and accidentally left his "chief negotiator" out of the negotiating team. I guess someone else was taking Mr Erekat's job back then.
Mr Erekat's real job is to look good in a suit and go on television and sound reasonable when, as on September 11, the excitable chaps in Ramallah are dancing in the street and singing the Arabic version of Happy Days Are Here Again. And he is, of course, "democratically elected", being presently in the ninth year of a five-year term. So Yasser keeps him around to do the CNN-BBC interviews when Hanan Ashrawi is washing her hair and they need someone to do the autopilot drone of "root causes", "desperation", "cycle of violence".
But, if Bush did "take my job", it's because Erekat is not up to it. For 10 years, the world has been trying to give a state to the Palestinians and the Palestinians keep tossing obstacles in their path. The latest innovation was a suicide-bomber arrested with explosives bearing HIV-infected blood, the thinking being that anyone who survived would get Aids. Unfortunately, the heat of the explosion kills the virus. But, in his combination of depravity and incompetence, the "Aids bomber" neatly encapsulates the present state of Palestinian "nationalism". The only way the Palestinians will get any kind of state is if Israel and America inflict it on them and eliminate such lethargic middle-men as Mr Erekat.
So Sharon is withdrawing from Gaza, abandoning the settlements and building a wall. This is bad news for those Palestinians who take a more nuanced approach to Jews - who think that, if you accidentally infect yourself while strapping on the HIV bomb, you should have the right to state-of-the-art treatment from an Israeli hospital. But they'll have to make the best of it. Israel has concluded that, if you can't "live in peace" with your neighbour, the priority is to live.
What a strange world the Middle East is. For 10 years, in northern Iraq, the Kurds have run a pleasant, civilised, pluralist, democratic de facto state, but external realities require them to be denied one de jure. For the same period, in the West Bank and Gaza the Palestinian Authority's thugs, incompetents and bespoke apologists have been lavished with EU aid and transformed their land into an ugly, bankrupt Arafatist squat. But external realities require the world to defer to the "Chairman" as a de jure head of state, lacking merely a state to head.
Meanwhile, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy to Iraq, has told French radio listeners that "the great poison in the region" is Israeli "domination" and told American television viewers that the Israelis "are not interested in peace, no matter what you seem to believe in America". Well, he certainly hit the ground running. A week in town and he is already sounding like any decades-old Arab despot. In The Spectator a year ago, I warned against handing over Iraq to the UN: it would simply "install as high commissioner a non-Iraqi Arab bureaucrat" who'd "effectively wind up as an Arab League minder, there to ensure that the Iraqis didn't get any funny ideas (rule of law, representative government) which might unduly discombobulate the Egyptians, Saudis et al." But even I didn't think they'd ship over such a walking, talking cliché of Arab League man as Mr Brahimi.
If it's any consolation to Saeb Erekat, Bush may have usurped his job in Palestine, but in Iraq Mr Brahimi is sounding as if he has usurped Bush's. And that's a lousy exchange.
©2004 - telegraph.co.uk