Bush administration debates policy

The Conclusions of the “Sharm Al Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee” report (now known as the “Mitchell Report”) took no one by surprise in Washington. Former senators George Mitchell and Warren Rudman (the two commission members from the United States) discussed the report with senior US administration leaders in a series of private meetings in the two weeks prior to the report’s release. Also, President George Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell reviewed a draft copy one week before the release, becoming well- acquainted with its conclusions.

What may come as a surprise, however, is that those talks sparked a heated debate in the White House and State Department on just how the US should react to the report.

A policy tug of war 

On one side of the debate were State Department Middle East experts that had been following the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian confrontations on a day-to-day basis. Nearly all of these experts felt that the Israeli response to Palestinian street demonstrations were “heavy handed” and “disproportionate.” And nearly all of these experts were pushing Powell to take a stronger public stance criticizing Israel than he has.

On the other side of the debate were White House foreign policy experts whose political views reflect a healthy disrespect for the interventionist policies of Bill Clinton – and who were loathe to get the US involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict between the two views has existed since the start of the Bush administration, but was exacerbated by the release of the Mitchell report, which was viewed in Washington as sharply critical of the Israelis.

In their meetings at the White House, both Mitchell and Rudman were outspoken in their criticism of the Israeli government’s settlement policies, saying that the continued expansion of Israeli settlements contravened international law and long-held US positions. Both former senators urged Bush and Powell to renounce Israel’s settlement policy and send a strongly-worded message to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon that unless settlement activity ceased, the US would take actions to “circumscribe” Israeli access to US funds.

In typical American fashion, the result of the debate was a compromise. The Bush administration decided that, in public, the US would dampen its criticism of Israel, but Bush would privately telephone Sharon to tell him of US “extreme displeasure” with Israeli settlement policy.

The reason for the compromise was the belief on the part of Bush’s top advisors that a public condemnation of Israeli would be counterproductive – and might even signal the Palestinians that the continued policy of confrontation with Israel was producing change.

“We were concerned that the Palestinians would think that not getting the situation in hand would reap benefits,” an administration spokesperson said. In addition, according to a National Security Council official, “We have a track record on this. We have learned that Israel will not cave in on this issue [of settlements] – the truth is that Israel is going to do what they want on settlements no matter how tough we are.”

So it was that the Mitchell Commission’s report was greeted with applause by Bush and Powell, but little else. Powell issued a public statement praising Mitchell and Rudman and urged Palestinians and Israelis to adopt the commission’s findings, which included a strongly worded condemnation of Israel’s settlement policies. But otherwise, Powell muted his criticism of Israel in deference to Bush’s wishes that any criticism of Israel be kept strictly private.

This hardly satisfied State Department Middle East experts, who are worried that the US position in the Middle East is being eroded by Israel’s continued intransigence on the settlement question. They pointed to the Mitchell commission’s outspoken condemnation of Israel’s refusal to circumscribe settlements, which the commission called “focal points for substantial friction.”

Roughly translated, the Mitchell commission came to the conclusion that Israel was promoting settlement expansion not because the settlements provided either a “safety valve” for Israel’s burgeoning population or because Israel needed to “provide security for the Israeli heartland but because Israel views the settlements as a means of “dividing the Palestinian population.”

In other words, the commission agreed with Palestinian claims that Israel settlement policies constitute a purposeful attempt to (as the report notes) “segregate the Palestinians in non-contiguous enclaves, surrounded by Israeli military-controlled borders, with settlements and settlement roads violating the territories’ integrity.”

Standing in his office at one of Washington’s leading law firms, where he is now a partner, former Senator Warren Rudman addressed the commission’s findings: “The settlements make no sense,” he said just prior to the report’s release. “The Israelis claim that the settlements buttress their security, but in fact they detract from it. How can they defend them? They can’t. All you have to do is spend a few hours in the West Bank or Gaza and you can see how the settlements are a flashpoint of anger for the Palestinians.”

Rudman was sharply critical of the Israelis, but he was also critical of the Palestinians. “You have to wonder who is in charge. There is no question that the situation could get very quickly out of control. Arafat can not control everything, but he has to do more than he is doing,” he said.

“You have to wonder about the PA’s viability” With that, White House officials note that both Mitchell and Rudman were outspoken in their condemnation of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership for allowing the violence to “get out of hand” and for not doing enough to “bring it under control.” One White House foreign policy official said the senators told Bush that “Arafat is barely in control of the situation in Gaza and the West Bank” and could be “in the midst of a power struggle of his own.”

Mitchell and Rudman criticized the Palestinian leadership for “a simple lack of knowledge of what is happening on their own territory.” Bush apparently agreed with the assessment. Confirming the commission’s findings, Bush told Mitchell in one meeting that Palestinian representation “at every level [in the US] is very thin, very thin.” Bush also said that while he had come under public pressure to invite Arafat to the White House, his advisors had come to the conclusion that “you either talk to Arafat or to no one.”

Bush reflected the administration’s frustration over not having a Palestinian of sufficient political stature assigned to Washington on a regular basis. Bush called this policy “unacceptable.” A State Department spokesperson confirmed this view. “Anytime you want to find out what is going on with the Palestinians you have to call Arafat,” she said. “There is no one else.”

Bush’s views echo the almost universally held position inside recent American administrations that “the Palestinians have to upgrade their diplomatic representation in Washington.”

“We have no one to talk to,” a State Department official said last week. “With no one to talk to you have to wonder about the PA’s viability; they have to get someone here who has some stature. The only option we have [here at the State Department] now is reading their press releases and listening to CNN. They have a story to tell, but they are not telling it. So they leave the field to the Israelis, who work 24 hours a day telling their story to the administration and to the American people. It’s ridiculous.”