This is "crunch time" for George Bush and Colin Powell in finding an alternative to war in Palestine, one that potentially could engulf the entire Middle East and threaten America's economic and strategic interests across Asia. Here are some of the key issues.
First, a few myths need to be dispelled.
* "Building trust between Israelis and Palestinians is a necessary first step to peace."
However, no amount of diplomacy, or Colin Powell's serving as honest broker, will now persuade Israelis and Palestinians to trust each other. Hatred on both sides makes trust impossible. *
* "Washington should use its influence to force Israel to withdraw from occupied territories."
Palestinians and Arab governments have argued ever since Israel was established in 1948 that the United States can force Israel to behave because it provides it with so much economic and military aid.. Many Europeans and Americans share that view.
* "Ariel Sharon, the current prime minister, wants to be remembered as the leader who brought peace to Israel."
But Sharon's entire military and political career displays an unrelenting determination to establish a "greater Israel," to include the West Bank and Gaza Strip and force the Palestinian population either to submit or move out. That is not peace.
Here are some realities that Colin Powell faces in trying to prevent war in the area:
* "Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority has the strength to impose its will on the other."
For all its military power and ruthless reoccupation of West Bank cities, Sharon's actions only strengthened Chairman Arafat's position and the Palestinians' determination to resist. Similarly, terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians bolstered Sharon's political position.
* "Israel's reoccupation of the West Bank to capture terrorists probably dooms the 1993 Oslo Accords, which held out international hope for peace in Palestine."
Israeli hardliners now control Sharon's cabinet and demand the permanent reoccupation of the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip. They seem prepared to risk war with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan to achieve this.
* "This dangerous conflict may expand and engulf other Arab countries and Muslim states."
The huge anti-Israel and anti-American demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and Morocco underline the danger. And Iraq's decision last week to shut off oil exports to world markets raises the possibility that other Persian Gulf states may also curtail oil production..
George Bush came to office expecting that he would concentrate on domestic affairs and put foreign policy on the backburner for a while. That hope was exploded on September 11 and the country quickly focused on the war on terrorism and homeland security. While the president concentrated on rooting out terrorists and confronting "axis of evil" countries, specifically Iraq, over building weapons of massive destruction, he expected that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not lead to urban warfare and jeopardize support for his planned confrontation of Iraq.
That expectation vanished during Vice President Richard Cheney's consultations in Arab capitals last month when he was told no cooperation was possible until Israel stopped its attacks on Palestinian cities. How Bush handles this new Middle East crisis may decide the success of his presidency, including his hope for reelection in 2004.
The president, in his dramatic April 4 address to the nation on the crisis in Palestine, reproached both Israelis and Palestinians for not doing enough to stop the violence. The address attracted world-wide attention because of Bush's demand that Israel stop its invasion of Palestinian cities: "Consistent with the Mitchell plan, Israeli settlement activities in occupied territories must stop, and the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries."
He also observed that "Israel should show a respect, a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people who are and will be their neighbors. It is crucial to distinguish between the terrorists and ordinary Palestinians seeking to provide for their own families."
These were not words that Sharon wanted to hear from the American president, and last week he ignored Bush's demand that Israel cease its military attacks in the West Bank. The president sent Colin Powell to the Middle East and Europe to build support for peace negotiations, but Powell faced a defiant Sharon who rejected a time limit on the operation.
Will President Bush prevail? Although he has high approval ratings at home for his management of the Afghanistan war, this support may not be easily transferable to dealing with an Arab-Israeli crisis. Despite Sharon's brutal treatment of Palestinians, support for Israel remains strong in the United States, whereas support for Palestinians, especially for Yasser Arafat, is marginal. Even though sympathy for Palestinians seems to be growing, particularly on U.S. college campuses, there is little support in Congress for a tough policy toward Israel.
George Bush has just two courses of action open, neither of them politically palatable.
First, he can try shuttle diplomacy by Colin Powell, similar to President Nixon's use of Henry Kissinger in 1973-74 to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and the Arab countries that had fought in the October War. He could even do what presidents Carter and Clinton did and try personal diplomacy in order to broker a Middle East peace. Bush does not favor that approach.
A second, more likely, course is building an international coalition led by the United States that gradually imposes a peace settlement on Israel and the Palestinians. President George Bush senior adopted that course in 1991 when he arranged an international meeting in Madrid and sent Secretary of State James Baker to lay the groundwork for the subsequent Oslo Peace Process. This brought together the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Last week Colin Powell's meeting in Madrid with European leaders, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. and Russia's foreign minister suggests that the current President Bush is pursuing a similar plan in 2002.
Can peace be imposed on an Israel headed by Ariel Sharon? Three months ago I didn't think so. But attitudes are changing, as indicated by a New York Times editorial (April 9) titled "Ariel Sharon's Costly Defiance." The paper wrote: "Mr. Sharon, who has always felt that others lacked his courage and conviction and whose career in the army was marked by defiance of Israel's leaders, has fallen into old patterns."
It added, "there can be little doubt that he is doing his country no good by failing to heed the sincere and urgent request of Israel's closest ally."
If peace is to be imposed by the international community, it may eventually have to be enforced by armed peace-keepers, not just civilian monitors as envisioned by Secretary Powell last week. Some experts suggest a force of 20-25,000 troops, mostly Americans, whose task would be preventing the outbreak of more violence between Israel and a new Palestinian state. This policy worked in Bosnia and Kosovo. Would it prevail in Palestine?
In my view it is highly desirable that both Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon step down as leaders of the Palestinians and Israelis, respectively, and make room for younger, more reasonable persons to complete the negotiations that will soon take place under international supervision.
Both of these old men have outlived their usefulness, and it is time for them to go.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST