Arafat is willing, but is the US?

The most recent United States intervention in the Middle East and the visit of Secretary of State Colin Powell faces serious obstacles, partly due to reasons right here and partly due to internal American politics. The overriding concern, however, is that the intervention simply came to late.

The fact that this visit came after Israel had already made the sweeping move of reoccupying all of the West Bank Palestinian territories has complicated the task of Colin Powell. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had no problem accepting the three-fold plan presented by Colin Powell. The secretary of state, on the other hand, had no problem understanding the difficulties experienced by Palestinians and their leadership over recent weeks. Both are in agreement that the plan Powell has to get out of this crisis remains impractical as long as the whole of the Palestinian territories are under Israel’s occupation. Therefore, the first hurdle facing Colin Powell’s diplomacy is the new fact created by Israel and its invasion.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seems to be insisting on continuing this invasion, however, offering two “reasonable” excuses. The first is that as long as there is no political process, there naturally will be no end of violent confrontations because the logic of the relations between the occupied Palestinian people and the Israeli occupiers can only be one of peace negotiations or confrontation.

Sharon’s second reasoning is that he is receiving contradicting messages from Washington, one urging him to stop his incursion and withdrawal, and the other encouraging him to continue. Sharon understands very well that Colin Powell appears to represent the minority view in the administration and that Washington will not be able to achieve consensus over anything beyond verbal criticism or calls for withdrawal. The Israelis and Israeli envoys in Washington, such as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the American Jewish lobby, have been able to convince the majority in the administration and the Congress that what Israel is doing is simply part of the war against terror. This view misleads these people from understanding the real nature of the conflict, which is that of a classic case of a struggle for decolonization that will not end without an end to the Israeli occupation.

This understanding has left the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to the whims of American internal politics and puts serious constraints on the possible success of Colin Powell’s mission. At the same time, there could be positive side effects to these circumstances. Not only does Sharon understand the US political reality, but Arafat, too, understands his own difficult and sensitive position. He understands that whatever Colin Powell stands for is probably his last chance.

Arafat has an interest in the success of this visit because, as far as Palestinians are concerned, if Colin Powell fails, it will be disastrous for the Palestinian cause. Therefore, Arafat will do his best to salvage Powell’s visit from the danger of failure threatened by Israel’s insistence on continuing its occupation coupled with the lack of political prospects.

Powell has suggested a plan of three parts. One is composed of two parallel processes–a gradual Israeli withdrawal and a gradual Palestinian responsiveness to any Palestinian violence. The second step is an economic package to rebuild and rehabilitate both the security and civilian Palestinian infrastructure. The third is a political package based on what Powell described as “the American vision of peace in the Middle East.”

The description of that package was very general and vague, but involves elements of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ famous ideas of a near-state and also includes ideas from Sharon’s idea for a regional conference–one without Arafat and consequently, without the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. In general, Arafat responded positively to this plan, but had two strong reservations: that political prospects should be based on specific frameworks including the Saudi initiative and the two most recent United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1402 and 1397, and that the current Israeli occupation not be subject to negotiations, i.e., that the whole of Powell’s package cannot be commenced until Israeli troops have withdrawn. That means that the main challenge in front of Powell is guaranteeing the Israeli willingness to end this occupation.

Still, with the Americans still unable to demonstrate equal sensitivity to Palestinian civilian casualties of the Israeli violence, nor to comprehend that there is no cause and effect in this ongoing vicious circle of violence (except for the Israeli occupation), the prospects of their contributing constructively to ending this violence are dim. Equally, as long as the Americans have no ideas based on understanding this violence as rooted in the political context of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and without sensitivity for international law as a criteria of judging what is right and wrong, the American efforts will remain hapless.

Finally, it might be useful to note that the failure of this American initiative will not only allow the conflict to continue, but will further aggravate the situation. The people on both sides will realize that there is no hope to be offered from outside, and the only tool at hand is the further use of each’s capabilities of force and violence.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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