is the Bush administration, after a period of benign neglect, suddenly
interested in mediating the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian dispute?
It's hardly a news flash that it's mainly because the administration
is just itching to attack Iraq. But how realistic is the idea that
the United States can play deus ex machina in the Middle
East after all these years?
Vice President Dick Cheney travels through the Middle East trying
to garner support for a frontal attack on Saddam Hussein's brutal
regime. Meanwhile, former
Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni dithers in Israel and Palestine
to see whether some kind of accommodation can be reached to stop
the mutual bloodletting that has reached alarming proportions during
what the Associated Press calls "the largest military operation
in 20 years" by the Israeli army.
involved and most of the news media acknowledges that the two missions
are closely related. As BBC Washington correspondent Tom Carver
noted, Mr. Cheney "admitted before leaving that he would be
asked at every stop about the Israeli-Palestinian issue." Mr.
Cheney doesn't have a blueprint for a settlement. But Secretary
of State Colin Powell said last week, "We have a vision. We
have a plan to solve this crisis but it begins with ending the violence."
thanks Colin. Nobody ever thought of that before. Ending the violence.
What a brilliant, novel idea. Now if you just had some notion about
how to end the violence we might have something to talk about.
Mr. Powell's comments came as American sources said that for the
first time the United States is considering stationing American
observers in Palestinian territories to try to halt the violence.
That would be virtually guaranteed to produce a significant number
of body bags coming home. Of all the conflicts in the world, this
one might have the most people with motivation to want to hurt Americans
and experience at doing so.
may hope that a few people in the American foreign policy establishment
are not really eager to station American "peacekeepers"
in Palestine or Israel to maintain an inevitably shaky truce. But
most diplomats believe an attack on Saddam Hussein will succeed
only if a significant number of Arab states support the offensive.
While a good deal of damage could probably be inflicted through
the use of U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, most military authorities
believe the U.S. will have to have at least some installations on
land to succeed in defeating Saddam.
the flurry of American activity in an arena in which the Bush administration
has until recently wisely declined to get too heavily involved.
will argue that the United States has a humanitarian obligation
to try to stop the mutual bloodletting. There is little doubt that
the violence between Israel and Palestine has escalated to horrendous
proportions in the last few weeks. But how realistic is the hope
that the United States, after all its history, can play honest broker
in the region? How deep are the enmities involved?
this week a Palestinian lady sent me a copy of a BBC report with
photographs that have been splashed across the front pages of Palestinian
and Arabic newspapers. The "graphic, but inconclusive images,"
as the BBC described some 11 photographs taken by an amateur photographer
from his window in East Jerusalem the previous Friday, purport to
show a Palestinian militant being executed by Israel Defense Forces.
police say it was necessary to prevent Mahmoud Salah, a member of
the al-Aqsa militia, from detonating bombs strapped to his body.
But if you thought somebody had bombs on his body, would you keep
your distance or get close and strip him? The photos show a man
being pushed to the ground, then stripped to his underwear with
a gun pointed at his head. There is no photo of a shot being fired,
but the final photo shows blood flowing from the area of his head
and his arms restrained behind his back.
pictures show the daily crimes being committed by Israeli forces,"
writes my correspondent.
is no shortage of photos showing the results of Palestinian violence
against Israelis, including civilians. A week ago Tuesday gunmen
attacked vehicles near Kibbutz Metsuba, a communal farm near the
border with Lebanon. Israeli radio said six Israelis and two assailants
were killed. There have been suicide bombings in numerous Israeli
civilian areas. And there has been a concerted Israeli military
campaign against refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza in the
days before Gen. Zinni's arrival.
is difficult to envision how the United States can solve all these
problems, especially since few Americans have or care to have the
kind of specialized and esoteric knowledge required to understand
the roots of these conflicts. As Ted Carpenter, vice president for
defense and international affairs at the libertarian Cato Institute
told me Tuesday, "I can imagine a truce, even a truce lasting
for a few months, assuming – and it's a big assumption – Yasser
Arafat can control Palestinian militants. But it's hard to see it lasting much longer."
rhetoric on both sides is appalling, reflecting hardened attitudes
that can see nothing but evil and bad intentions on the other side.
There's been a resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism not seen in
public since the Nazi days in the Arab press. A Saudi newspaper
financed by the government recently ran a piece by a purported Saudi
scholar seriously claiming that Jews cannot celebrate the feast
of Purim without pastries made of the blood of young non-Jewish
children – the ancient "blood libel."
last week reported on a poll in which 46 percent of Israeli Jews
consider "transferring" Palestinians from the West Bank
and Gaza – to where was not specified – an acceptable option. The
word "transfer" is really a euphemism for "expulsion."
Advocates claim that expulsion would not be necessary because hundreds
of thousands of Palestinians would leave voluntarily. Sure they
mutual hostility is deplorable enough. Still, it remains difficult
to see what the United States or other outsiders can do to ameliorate
all this hostility.
to Leon Hadar, former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and
now Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Leon
has for several years been propounding the idea that with the demise
of the Soviet Union and no direct threat to Israel's actual existence,
it is most useful to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as
a local ethnic dispute rather than as one with vast geopolitical
dimensions requiring outside management or intervention.
pointed out to me that although there are stories detailing frustration
with the current level of violence among Israelis, you don't see
people on the streets demanding that Ariel Sharon either resign
or take more forceful action. Likewise, there is no serious opposition
to Yasser Arafat among Palestinians, and what opposition exists
consists generally of more militant figures.
the parties involved can live, however uneasily, with the current
situation, why should outsiders believe they have to – or can –
come in and fix things?" he asked me. He noted also that while
a Wednesday New York Times story characterized intensified violence
in the days before Gen. Zinni's arrival as "paradoxical,"
it isn't paradoxical at all. Violence has escalated in the days
before each of Zinni's trips, which is not surprising if you figure
both sides would want to consolidate whatever gains they think they
might make before a possible cease-fire.
RATHER THAN PLANNING
Hadar also points out that the U.S. interventions in the 1970s that
culminated in the Camp David peace agreements between Israel and
Egypt were preceded by months and years of behind-the-scenes activity.
He sees little evidence of such preparation today. "The U.S.
is acting now mainly to create a conducive environment to take on
Iraq," he told me.
how might the U.S. try to create such an environment? We've already
seen a frenetic, largely improvised effort to get at least a cease-fire
in place. There have been references to the failed plan developed
a while ago by CIA director George Tenet, or to the George Mitchell
pipedreams. Bush has even had nice things to say about the Saudi
plan, which is essentially a
PR gesture that restates old positions and proposals that haven't
in the past.
has also been at least a slight rhetorical tilt away from Israel.
The U.S. sponsored that UN resolution that referred to a Palestinian
state. The Bushlet offered some mild criticism of Israel, criticizing
recent actions that were not qualitatively different from what Israel
had been doing
a week or two before.
Israelis got the message and announced a pullback from Ramallah.
But that gesture does not change the strategic situation. Although
there is some evidence of impatience with Ariel Sharon among Israelis,
everyone knows that Israel is fully capable of resuming the military
campaign whenever it desires.
is still possible that U.S. pressure will induce a cease-fire. But
a cease-fire that doesn't deal even with the immediate issues that
divide the sides – status of refugees, status of Jerusalem, what
the borders will be, how they will be guarded, genuine recognition
of the other side's right to exist free of invasion on both sides
– let alone the decades of mutual mistrust, is likely to provide
only a temporary respite from violence. Most Middle Easterners know
this full well.
PEACE BRING ENDORSEMENT?
that is one reason why, according to most reports, the Arabs have
been telling Cheney that an attack on Iraq is not exactly their
first desire in the world. And one wonders whether even a virtual
guarantee of Israeli-Palestinian peace would bring Arab enthusiasm
for such a campaign.
Arab leaders have much love for Saddam Hussein, although Jordan
has what it considers a necessary relationship. And an attack could
bring unintended consequences. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, some
of the Gulf states and other countries that essentially missed out
on the recent global economic boom now face restive young, restive,
mostly unemployed populations that are natural recruiting grounds
with the United States, especially allowing U.S. troops to use their
territory or facilities, could feed unrest that is only a concern
right now. We could see "regime change" that wasn't on
the agenda of the "international community" or welcomed
by those Arab governments. Furthermore, Turkey and Jordan might fear a
broken-up Iraq – one possible outcome of a U.S. victory – more than
Saddam Hussein, the evil they know.
main hope is that the two sides along the Jordan will eventually
get so war-weary that they will be ready to end the violence. At
that point the United States, the United Nations or some other combination
of outside forces might serve a useful function as a mediator or
honest broker. Unfortunately,
that day doesn't seem to be in the offing any time soon.
Pushing the issue, creating a phony agreement before conditions
are ripe, is almost certain to do more harm than good.
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