They had varying opinions, arguing among themselves and cutting each other off until one young woman brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Of course," she said, "we all feel such rage against the United States because of what is going on in Gaza. This is something all Pakistanis feel." The others nodded vigorously in agreement.
There it was. Take pretty much any group of Muslims — Arabs, Iranians, South or East Asians, whatever — and the one subject on which there is near universal agreement is the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
In the United States, little attention is paid to news footage of Palestinian funerals in Gaza. But in the Muslim world, these are huge stories, in part because it is the only issue about which there is a clear consensus. It's no different than the Israeli media covering outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence somewhere in the Diaspora — equal parts empathy, solidarity, and fury at the perpetrators and their enablers.
From Egypt and Jordan all the way to Indonesia and Malaysia, American interests are injured by the perception that the United States is responsible for Palestinian suffering. Not long ago viewed as aspiring, honest brokers, we are now seen as the one nation in the world that could help end the occupation of the West Bank and the blockading of Gaza — and isn't even trying.
That is probably the main reason President Bush is traveling to Israel and the West Bank. He understands that his direct, personal and very visible intervention is critical if America is to have any hope of convincing 1.6 billion Muslims that we are at least trying to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
He needs to demonstrate that despite the rhetoric in some circles here about Islamo-fascism, we are not engaged in a civilization war against Muslims.
Not surprisingly, there is considerable skepticism that America intends to do anything to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not only in the Arab and Muslim world.
Over the past seven years, the Bush administration has repeatedly promised that it was going to push hard for negotiations. And every time, after a well-publicized announcement, the initiative was left to wither on the vine — with the encouragement of powerful elements of the pro-Israel lobby who pressed their minions on Capitol Hill to ensure that peace was not given a chance. Their task was made only easier by the periodic outbreaks of terrorism which they used as a pretext for doing nothing.
So why should it be any different now?
During most of the Sharon years, U.S. officials who were determined to preserve the status quo had a strong ally in the prime minister of Israel. That is no longer the case. In fact, it is no secret that the neocons are none too fond of the current premier, Ehud Olmert, who they see as hopelessly dovish. Bush, on the other hand likes and trusts him.
Gone are the days when neoconservative aides to the president of the United States would call aides to the Israeli prime minister to strategize on how best to put the breaks on U.S. peacemaking. Most of them are gone. The surviving neocons are nowhere near as strong as they once were. They are certainly not strong enough to thwart a president who is determined to pull off an Israeli-Palestinian agreement during his last year in office, especially if that president has an ally in the Israeli top office.
The terrain has also been altered dramatically.
Frankly speaking, there is no reason for Bush to go to Israel. It is a long and arduous trip, with no guarantee of success. The only reason he's going is because he's determined to make Israel-Palestinian peace his legacy.
Can he do it? Indeed, he can. All it takes is the will. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians — both dependent on America — can say "no" to a determined American president. All it takes is presidential will.
We'll see soon if Bush has that.
M.J. Rosenberg is the director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.