Four months after entering the White House, George Bush and his national security team are being pressed to deal with the most difficult and dangerous problem for American foreign policy in the past year.
Israeli-Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza regions of Palestine, now resembling a civil war, is the product of deep-seated hatred between two religious entities which declare an historic right to occupy the same territory. International hopes that were generated by US-sponsored peace negotiations during the past five years are largely dead.
In significant ways, the ethnic and religious hatreds on display in Palestine resemble the religious and ethnic conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo between Serbs and Muslims, and in Chechnya between Russians and the local Muslim population. In each case, all but the most idealistic foreign observers acknowledge that partition, not a multiethnic state, is the best way these societies can be governed without continuing ethnic warfare.
Two important recent visits to the Middle East, one by Pope John Paul, and an earlier one by former Senator George Mitchell, may help to bring Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate an end to the violence. The pope went to Syria, as he did to Israel last year, to urge Arabs and Israelis to stop the killing and work for a lasting peace. The visit was criticized by some because the pope sat silent as Syria's president, Bashar Assad, publicly denounced Israel for its brutal suppression of the Palestinians.
George Mitchell, who did a remarkable job of negotiating peace in Northern Ireland several years ago, headed a fact-finding commission that was established by President Clinton last fall. Its purpose was to recommend ways that Israel and the Palestinian Authority might restart the peace process that ended last fall when violence broke out over a provocative visit to a Muslim shrine in Jerusalem by Ariel Sharon, the hard-line Israeli leader who became Israel's prime minister this year. The Mitchell commission report has been accepted by the Palestinian Authority and by Israel, but Sharon rejects its major recommendation that Israel stop expanding settlements in the occupied territories.
Meanwhile, violence continues and Israeli forces are using assassination as a policy to get rid of Palestinians they suspect of terrorist activities. Helicopter gun ships now target PLA leaders, and Israeli bulldozers are destroying Arab houses and orchards.
A month ago Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly rebuked Israel for attempting to reoccupy lands previously turned over to the Palestinian Authority. Sharon withdrew his forces but they continue to make armed raids into Palestinian lands.
Anthony Lewis, veteran columnist for the New York Times, wrote on May 13 ("Danger to Israel") of the risks in Sharon's insistence on continuing to build housing in the West Bank
He cites recent polls in Israel that show a clear majority of Israelis think there should be a freeze on settlement building in exchange for a cease-fire agreement with the Palestinians.
Lewis' description of these settlements is instructive: "First, it is false to see the settlements as ordinary villages or towns where Israelis only want to live in peace with the Palestinian neighbors. They are in fact imposed by force--superior Israeli military force--on Palestinian territory...Second, the settlements are provocative to the local Palestinian population in a way that Americans would easily understand if something similar happened to them. Imagine waking up one day to find a foreign power building apartment blocks across the street from your suburban home, under armed guard." The Washington Post also criticized Israeli settlement policy in an editorial May 11 ("Murders and Missles"): "Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defiantly moved ahead with plans to spend at least $200 million more on Jewish settlements, even as an international commission headed by former senator George Mitchell identified such Israeli expansionism as one of the root causes of the breakdown of the peace process." The Post criticized the Bush administration for showing little interest "to exert the U.S. influence that has been a vital component of Middle East peacemaking for decades."
Key questions that President Bush and Secretary of State Powell must address are: What is the likelihood that an active U.S. role will produce peace in Palestine? What amount of pressure can realistically be exerted on Sharon to make concessions similar to those made last year by former prime minister Ehud Barak? Will Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia support Washington if it Powell tells the Palestinians they should give up "right of return" for displaced persons who were forced from their homes in the 1948 war? Finally, will the parties agree to internationalization of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holy sites in the old city of Jerusalem?
President Bush probably has three policy options, none of which can ensure lasting peace in Palestine. They are:
* Continue the current "aloof but interested" policy of offering suggestions to both sides, while avoiding a Clinton-like posture of direct U.S. mediation between Israel and the PLA.
* Pressure Israel's current government to stop settlement expansion and accept former prime minister Ehud Barak's plan to relinquish 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, in return for a binding peace treaty that is guaranteed by international agreements.
* Offer Palestinians a cease-fire and substantial economic aid, but advise them to give up hopes of achieving a peace agreement similar to the one offered by Barak, which they rejected..
The first option, "remaining aloof," probably is not politically feasible for the White House because George Bush doesn't wish to be seen as a detached president on this Middle East issue. The second option, pressure on Israel, is the preferred course of Arab and some European countries. But it would generate vigorous opposition in Congress, especially from Democrats who depend on Jewish votes for reelection to the House and Senate in 2002.
The third option, pressure on the Palestinians, is clearly supported by the Sharon government and by conservative American Jewish groups. However, advancing this course risks strong opposition from the Arab countries which Washington does not want to antagonize because of their political and economic influence, particularly Persian Gulf oil.
Ten years ago, following success of US- led military operations against Iraq, former president George Bush sent his secretary of state, James Baker, to a conference in Madrid on starting a peace process for Palestine. Leaders of all the Arab countries attended, as well as representatives of the Soviet Union, the United States and several European states. Israel came only reluctantly, and only after strong U.S. pressure.
The Madrid conference led to the Oslo peace accord in 1993 between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (later assassinated by an Israeli extremist) and PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
George W. Bush may have a similar approach for ending the current violence. He may prefer an international forum instead of the White House sponsored process that Bill Clinton adopted. But an international forum is not acceptable to Sharon, and U.S. pressure may be required. It would be helpful if prominent Democrats, Senator Joseph Lieberman, for example, stated publicly that it is time for Israel to give up its settlements policy and start negotiations.
A majority of Israelis, according to recent polls, favor a halt to settlement expansion. Some are expressing second thoughts about having elected Sharon as the prime minister who would bring peace and security to their country. If he does not deliver peace and security soon, after the massive repression of Palestinians, it may be time for a new government in Israel.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST