In mid-November Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered the Bush Administration's long-delayed statement on its plans for re-engaging in efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. "We have a vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders," he said. Other than the purely symbolic use of the term "Palestine," a breakthrough in the semantic wars that punctuate the decades-old conflict, nothing in Powell's speech showed any indication that the Administration has a clue about how to get the parties back to the negotiating table. Powell ritually admonished both sides, seemingly with objective balance. Terror and violence against Israelis must stop, he told the Palestinians. Settlement activity and killing of innocent Palestinians must stop, he told the Israelis.
But if Powell had been really serious about reversing the cycle of violence, he would have admitted Washington's role in the conflict–continuing to arm and fund Israel despite its steady expansion of settlements and its systematic violation of Palestinians' human rights in the occupied territories. Ten years ago, the first Bush Administration refused to meet officially with then-Housing Minister Ariel Sharon because of his aggressive role in building settlements. And it took a modest step in the right direction by telling Israel that it would delay $10 billion in loan guarantees if Israel kept expanding settlements. The threat helped bring right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the table with the Palestinians, paving the way for recognition of the PLO and the beginning of the Oslo process.
Powell showed no such resolve, with the result that his speech had no effect. Instead, the blind rush of events has propelled the White House to a far more dangerous course. After a horrendous series of violent acts–which began with the killing in Gaza of five Palestinian children who tripped a booby-trapped bomb planted by the Israeli army, and the provocative assassination of a Hamas leader who, Israelis said, was behind recent suicide bombings–three more Palestinians blew themselves up in crowded streets and on a bus, killing at least twenty-five Israelis and wounding hundreds more. And this time, there were no calls from the Bush Administration for Israeli restraint.
The Palestinians' desperate and appalling turn to terrorism has backfired. For there seems to be little willingness in Washington to see equivalence between their tactics and Israeli military operations even when those parallels may exist. "We're not about to tell Mr. Sharon what he should do," said Powell, in the least belligerent of several statements to come from the White House. Given that green light, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took the unprecedented step of bombing Yasir Arafat's offices and attacking several police headquarters, even though the Palestinian Authority had arrested about 100 Palestinian militants. The last time Washington gave Sharon a green light was in 1982, when as commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon he occupied Beirut and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. That war, which Sharon supposedly devised to destroy the PLO, instead solidified its international status. As we go to press, it looks as though Sharon is intent on tearing apart the PA in the dubious belief that he can find quislings to deal with instead of Arafat.
Of greater concern is the new analogy taking hold in Washington. "The PLO is the same as the Taliban, which aids, abets and provides safe haven for terrorists," said Senator Chuck Schumer. "And Israel is like America, simply trying to protect its home front. To ask Israel to negotiate with Arafat is like asking America to negotiate with Mullah Muhammad Omar." This, almost verbatim, is the line that Sharon has been pushing since September 11. But that analogy is false, not only because the Palestinian Authority is recognized by the 189 members of the United Nations as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people but because in no way can the West Bank and Gaza be considered part of Israel's "home front." 200,000 Israeli settlers are occupying lands that belong to and are inhabited by more than 3 million Palestinians, and there can be no peace until that central fact is undone.
The last time a US President referred to the settlements as "obstacles to peace" was under Bush I. Israel's settlement policy and Sharon, the bulldozer of a man who has been its mastermind almost from the beginning, have won, with the result that the Palestinians have lost all hope in any kind of peaceful resolution to their grievances. The hell described so painfully and eloquently in this issue by Robert I. Friedman is here. "The biggest factory for suicide bombers is your policy," Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of Palestinian Preventive Security in Gaza, told an Israeli reporter recently. "I can put out a table to sign people up at the Rafah roadblock and in two minutes I'll have 200 suicide bombers. Once it was difficult to persuade people to commit suicide. Today everyone wants to. Don't you people understand that?"
The grim future now facing Israel/Palestine can be changed only by active international intervention, led by the United States. To begin, the United Nations could send in peacekeepers to separate the warring sides, as it has done in other parts of the world. The United States could set up a fund to help repatriate Jewish settlers, using that portion of US aid that now goes into expanding the settlements. Or, thinking more ambitiously, the Security Council could impose a solution, by claiming international jurisdiction over the occupied territories. Under such a scenario, the Council could offer to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, contingent on Palestine's recognition of Israel as a Jewish state within the pre-1967 borders and with full security guarantees. The details of a final compromise on Jerusalem, refugees and territorial swaps, as we now know from various post-mortems on the last round of intensive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, are not far from reach. What's needed is the political will. The question now is whether Washington really cares about peace in the Middle East, or whether US policy-makers don't mind what Israel does there as long as all-out war does not break out.