A weak American dose

Washington – The just-concluded three-day visit by US Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East was a much-needed American shot in the arm to shore up Palestinian-Israeli peace making, but it turned out that the dose was very weak, if not inferior.

Hardly had the secretary’s plane touched down in Washington when Israel assassinated three Palestinian activists riding in their car with American-supplied weapons – Apache helicopters. This was immediately followed by two car bombs exploding inside Israel by one of the radical factions and the shooting death of an Israeli settler.

Powell was successful in getting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to agree to a seven-day truce at the end of which the remaining three steps mandated by the Mitchell Commission report for the resumption of peace negotiations will be launched.

But before the clock started ticking to launch the first step – a six-week “cooling off” period, Powell abandoned some of his public commitments. Standing next to Arafat, he had endorsed the need for international monitors to observe the ceasefire – a long-held Palestinian demand – but he changed his mind when he saw Sharon the next day, saying the deployment would need to be approved by the two parties – something Israel has inexplicably and adamantly refused to do.

The American secretary, it has now become apparent, was not very keen on making his Middle East trip, which came on the heels of the CIA-brokered ceasefire which took effect on June 13. In fact, the Bush administration has, since assuming office last January, distanced itself from this political quagmire, refusing to follow in the footsteps of the Clinton administration.

As a matter of fact, Powell acknowledged to reporters travelling with him to the region that he was making the trip because the United States was facing mounting pressure from everywhere “to do something, or at least be seen to be trying”, as the Washington Post explained on July 1. The paper went on: “Unless violence is contained, some (unidentified) diplomats contend, the nine-month Palestinian uprising could lead to the biggest political realignment in the region since the Gulf War. It could inflame the Arab world and erode support for US efforts to isolate Iraq, stabilise oil prices, nurture moderate Arab states and engage with Iranian reformers.”

The Bush administration’s half-hearted effort to bring the Palestinians and Israelis back on track still needs a little more muscle, but more appreciation of the sensitivities to the needs of the two parties, particularly the Palestinians who always seem to receive the short end of the American stick.

There was little hope raised in Washington following the public tiff that unexpectedly developed between President George W. Bush and Sharon when he came calling last month, for the second time in three months, for Palestinian efforts to control the unrest. But now all bets are off that Washington may still wag its stick against some of Sharon’s vulgar utterances against the Palestinian leadership or his conduct of “active defence” which to date have cost the lives of more than 30 Palestinian activists.

Missing from the American stance is insistence that Israel implement its various past agreements or commit itself to abandoning settlement expansion (as called for in the Mitchell report) at a time when two just-published polls reveal a rare agreement among Palestinians and Israelis for an end to Jewish settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian areas. (The polls were conducted separately last month by the Palestinian-run Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre and the Dahaf Institute in Israel.)

More disappointing has been the failure of the Bush administration to stand up against the humiliation and suffering inflicted upon the Palestinian population by the Israeli occupation forces. In other words, the Bush administration now appears to be pursuing the same approach that led to the failure of the Clinton administration to find a mutually acceptable settlement to the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. (A noteworthy sidebar: Ex-President Clinton revealed last week that in his final phone chat with Arafat before leaving office, he told the Palestinian leader: “I’m a colossal failure – because of you!”)

Secretary Powell needs to step back a little and rethink his approach. He should not rule out assistance from any European nation or the United Nations; after all, they were equal sponsors of the Mitchell fact-finding commission whose report has now become the cornerstone of the administration’s Mideast policy, which would need American muscle to be fully and honestly implemented.