May 6, 2002
Who runs America's foreign policy? The answer to this vexing question seems to vary, depending on the day of the week which could mean it has something to do with the position of the Moon. Some days, it's Colin Powell over at the State Department. Other times, control is ceded to the super-hawks in the Defense Department. And, on occasion, it seems no one is at the helm, with different factions of the government each enunciating their own foreign policy, giving the odd impression of an administration talking out of both sides of its mouth.
CHANGING THE CHANNEL
Just this past weekend, the Sunday morning talk shows featured Colin Powell on "Meet the Press" essentially saying the Israeli settlements over 30 new ones have been built during Sharon's tenure have got to go. But one had only to change the channel over to Fox News Sunday to hear National Security advisor Condoleeza Rice instantly transform the official US position on the settlements question:
"Let's take one thing at a time. Settlements will eventually be an issue. But I think we have to get the context right here. We need to end the terror, create a situation in which there is better security and no violence."
Now, you tell me: what is the US position on the settlements question? Damned if I know. Is anybody in charge? If so, who?
We'll know the answer to this fascinating question by the time Ariel Sharon winds up his trip to Washington at the end of this week.
CHALLENGE AND RESPONSE
The recent turn in US policy, away from unconditional support for the Sharon's policies, and toward a more even-handed position, is a gauntlet thrown in Sharon's path and he did not hesitate to take up the challenge. A showdown is imminent. General Sharon has mustered his troops especially the brigade stationed in Washington, D.C. and I hope George W. Bush is prepared for the all-out assault, because it is going to be merciless.
The Washington gossips whisper that George W. Bush is liable to agree with whomever he met with last. This may explain why Sharon was so quick to take up the President's open invitation, at the conclusion of his meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah, to visit with the leaders of other Middle Eastern states. The triumph of the Arabists, exemplified by the administration's embrace of the Saudi peace offensive, provoked a counter-attack launched from Tel Aviv. But something tells me this guided missile is going to misfire, and badly.
After all, the crusty old ultra-nationalist is not exactly the best advertisement for his cause. Prolonged exposure to him Sharon is certain to invite comparisons to Jean Marie Le Pen. Short, squat, and constantly barking, the two of them resemble bulldogs, or pit-bulls. i.e. potentially dangerous creatures that need constant reining in.
UP AGAINST IT
Aside from the abrasive personality of the Israeli leader, the bad public relations of coming up against an American President, especially one who is being tested as he hasn't been since 9/11, puts the Israelis at an automatic disadvantage. In spite of Ms. Rice's Likudnik effusions, the administration has set down certain parameters, chief among them being the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and its chief executive, Yasser Arafat. The Los Angeles Times reports the view from inside the State Department:
"'We don't have a whole lot of faith in Arafat. But at the same time, there isn't any alternative,' said the senior State Department official. 'He was chosen legitimately, if not totally democratically, by the Palestinians. We can't pick the leader. So our view is that he needs to be pushed, and we have to rebuild the Palestinian Authority based on democracy and transparency.'"
The State Department's proposal to build up the Palestinian Authority, to transform it into a real administrative and sovereign entity accountable to its own people and the international community, is diametrically opposed to Sharon's program, which is to destroy the PA and expel the Palestinians from the occupied territories. Sharon's campaign to take out Arafat politically, physically, and permanently has failed, due to US pressure, but don't think the Israelis have given up.
ISRAEL CREATED HAMAS
Driven by domestic political pressures, Sharon is coming to Washington armed with a 100-page dossier supposedly proving, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Arafat personally ordered and planned the suicide bombings. His "proof" comes, we are told, from "captured documents" supposedly taken out of Arafat's offices, left lying around by fleeing PLO personnel. Uh huh. Very convincing, but, as the Los Angeles Times had the temerity to report,
"U.S. officials say they plan to remind Sharon of Israel's attempt to foster an alternative to the nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization by encouraging Palestinians in the 1970s to turn to their religion. One result was the growth of Hamas, one of three extremist groups behind the recent spate of suicide bombings in Israel."
Ouch! The last time I mentioned Israel's past sponsorship of Hamas, we received at least half a dozen letters saying, essentially, "how dare you even imply such a thing!" Well then, here we have it out of the mouths of our own officials and so, I ask you, is the government of the United States run by anti-Semites? Or by Americans who have decided, for once, to put America first? We report. You decide.
OH, SILLY ME
I was astonished to read, in the British Telegraph, a story headlined: "Sharon to take hard line with Bush." Oh really? Gee, and here I thought it was Israel that was dependent on American aid, and not vice versa: all this time I've been laboring under the delusion that the US was the dominant party in the US-Israeli alliance. Silly me, I actually believed that we were the patron, and they were the patronized.
But General Sharon is nobody's satellite, and he is determined to yank American policy back into its familiar Israeli-centric obit. What's more, he just may pull it off .
GEORGE W. BUSH TAKES CHARGE
"We're certainly going to hear Sharon out," a State Department official told the Los Angeles Times, "but the president has provided a broad outline of what he thinks needs to happen, and we're not going to back away from that." The President's men are not only drawing a line in the sand, they are drawing three of them, telling the Israelis they must:
Sounds good to me. The whole thing is supposed to come together at an international conference, including the Europeans, the Russians, and other regional players: the Israelis, naturally, are unalterably opposed, citing a Euro-Russian-"anti-Semitic" world conspiracy and vowing never to take part.
FOR A FREE MARKET PALESTINE
The Times, citing their State Department source, lets us in on the plan to build up the PA, albeit in a new and unfamiliar form:
"Washington is now determined to ensure that a new Palestinian state is built on democratic and free-market principles.
"'I can't imagine that Israel will not find that attractive,' the official said."
I can. The last thing the Israelis want is a free market Palestine on their border. That socialist Sparta won't allow free enterprise in Israel proper why should they permit it in the occupied territories?
THE GREAT WALL OF SHARON
for his part, is coming to the US armed not only with his Arafat dossier,
but also with plans to build a "security fence," Israel's version
of the Great Wall of China although perhaps the Berlin Wall is a more apt
architectural precedent. It will be interesting to see just how far into the
occupied territories this proposed barrier is slated to extend. This may have
something to do with the alleged "concessions" Sharon is purportedly
make being touted by Time magazine. As to what, exactly, these consist of, Time is inexplicably mysterious, revealing only that:
"Israeli officials say the concession will involve a new map for a potential Palestinian state."
In the Israeli view, you see, even admitting the potential legitimacy of a Palestinian state is an enormous "concession," even if it's only a series of disconnected South African-style bantustans, as was offered by the Israelis last time around.
But while this kind of arrogance is applauded in Congress, it's not going to go over well in the White House. Time cites "a senior US official close to the talks" as saying of Sharon:
"He's got to be willing to say that the [Palestinian] state will come in a reasonable time frame; it has to be viable [that is, territorially contiguous], and even if it's established on an interim basis, it's got to be linked to a final settlement."
ATTACK OF THE AMEN CORNER
None of this is acceptable to Sharon, who, even if he agreed to Bush's terms, wouldn't last long enough in office to sign his name to an agreement. In order to prevail, Sharon must go over the head of the American President and make a political appeal to Likud's supporters in this country to put the pressure on and keep it on. The campaign took off well before Sharon's plane, with non-binding resolutions passed by both houses of Congress pledging unconditional allegiance to Israel. Mary McGrory had it right. With the fate of the Middle East hanging in the balance, and the President's policy teetering on the edge of either glorious success or utter failure,
"It did seem an ideal moment for adult inaction. But the die was cast at a Tuesday meeting at the White House. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle announced the restiveness among his horses, who were hot to trot for Israel; Tom DeLay announced he couldn't hold his, and the derby was on."
Particularly interesting is McGrory's analysis of how the Republicans engaged in an amazing stunt of political doublethink to explain away openly undermining the President. By opposing him, you see, they were really supporting him:
"House Republicans, usually sticklers for loyalty, quite easily rationalized resistance to George Bush's objections. They took a cue from Binyamin Netanyahu, who, on a recent U.S. tour, announced that George Bush, whatever he was saying, was on Israel's side. He might talk evenhanded 'on the days he talks to Colin Powell,' in the cloakroom formulation but he wasn't kidding when he called Ariel Sharon 'a man of peace.'"
No, Bush wasn't kidding next to Netanyahu, Sharon is "a man of peace." Bush understands well that Sharon operates under certain political constraints, just like he does: the question is, whose constraints will prove tighter? Israeli public opinion seems, so far, solidly behind Sharon's intransigence, but in America the picture is more complicated.
SABOTAGING THE PRESIDENT
While Israel's poll numbers are rapidly falling, albeit not out of any real sympathy for the Palestinians so much as disgust with both sides, the Likudnik strategy is to make an end-run around the majority. If Israel can touch all the right pressure points, rally its small but vocal cadre of American Likudniks, and mobilize the far right wing of the President's own party against him all the while openly courting the Democrats the President's new policy can be effectively sabotaged. That would suit putative presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, author of the Senate resolution, just fine. It would also suit the President's enemies in the conservative movement, especially the neocons still seething over the alleged "dirty tricks" that supposedly cheated their man McCain out of the nomination.
LET US PRAY
George W. Bush, famous for "bonding" with world leaders from Vicente Fox to Tony Blair to Crown Prince Abdullah, has his work cut out for him in Ariel Sharon. When he butts heads with that old soldier, we'll see what kind of stuff this President is made of: marshmallow or granite. For those of us who want to see peace in the Middle East, let us hope and pray it is the latter.
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