Light at the end of the tunnel

Washington When it was the turn of the horse to have new shoes, the Arabic saying goes, the mouse put his foot forward in the hope that he will be treated similarly.

This is exactly the case with copycat Ariel Sharon who is hoping that the world would look at him as approvingly as President Bush in his “war on terrorism”. But no one, it seems, is buying the new Israeli line to discredit, if not derail, the Palestinian National Authority despite the dispatch of high-powered Israeli spokesmen to Washington and elsewhere. Sharon, in fact, is said to be hoping to visit Washington next month, a trip that is bound to raise the ire of Palestinian leaders and infuriate Arab officialdom.

Some unidentified Israeli officials, according to The New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem, “favour an international diplomatic push to make the case that (Yasser) Arafat collaborates with terrorists and should be shunned”. As a matter of fact, these same officials were said to feel that the leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, would be a better alternative to the Palestinian leader since they would not be greeted with red carpets in foreign capitals.

Taking a line from the American president, Sharon has demanded after the tit-for-tat assassination of Israeli ultra-nationalist minister Rehavam Zeevi that Arafat hand over those responsible for the unprecedented attack on an elected Israeli official or be treated “as an entity supporting and sponsoring terror”.

Zeevi, in the eyes of Palestinians and others in the international community, “bears significant moral responsibility”, as one Israeli columnist put it, for his membership in the Israeli security cabinet which has authorised countless operations involving liquidations, house demolitions, shellings and curfews. This policy is responsible for the elimination of at least 35 Palestinian leaders, six of them last week alone. Abu Ali Mustafa, the political leader of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was himself “liquidated” by the Israeli military, an action that is believed to have precipitated the killing of the Zeevi.

Washington’s response to the Israeli stranglehold on Palestinian autonomous cities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has been tepid. There was no outright American condemnation of the widespread Israeli action. All Secretary of State Colin Powell would say in a television interview was that he hopes the Israelis “will be able to leave the territory that they have occupied recently” – six towns, including four identified by Osama Ben Laden in his first televised broadcast after the tragic events of Sept. 11 and which prompted some support from the so-called “Arab street”. Powell could have repeated, but chose not to, the earlier colourless US position that “targeted assassinations (Israel’s euphemism for assassination) of the kind that we have seen is not in the best interest of trying to find a way to move forward with the peace process”.

Furthermore, one would have expected Israel’s modelling of its incursions into Palestinian land on American strikes against the Taleban and Ben Laden’s Al Qaeda would precipitate some serious concern among senior American officials. After all, the American side would not want its coalition partners, especially those in the Arab world and among Islamic countries, to equate Israel’s invasion of Palestinian cities with its own bombardment of Osama Ben Laden’s Al Qaeda and the Taleban regime.

Assistant Secretary of State William Burns also tiptoed around this ticklish situation, repeating last Friday to an audience that included dissatisfied former American diplomats who served in the Middle East that America’s friendship with Israel remains “unshakeable” – the description that is now in vogue compared to yesteryears’ cliché that the Jewish state is this country’s “strategic ally”.

Much to surprise of a select audience that included several Clinton administration officials, visiting Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres insisted that he did not hear “a word of criticism” in his first days of talks here with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. This followed a State Department call earlier in the day that “Israeli defence forces should be withdrawn immediately from all Palestinian-controlled areas, and no further such incursions should be made”.

This apparent American vacillation comes at a time when hopes were high that the Bush administration was preparing a major policy statement on the Middle East during the opening of the annual UN General Assembly session. But following last month’s tragic incidents in New York and Washington, the administration now seems uncertain about its anticipated action. Several senior officials have even privately refused to confirm whether the much-awaited speech was still in the works.

Regardless, the surprise appointment of Dr Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University, as successor to the late Faisal Husseini as the PNA’s Jerusalem representative, and especially his views on Palestinian-Israeli peace-making, have caused a little stir in Washington at a time when the situation looked quite gloomy. Of most significance was his daring view voiced before a Hebrew University audience that Palestinians ought to abandon their long-standing demand on the right of return for Palestinian refugees – one of the key issues in the final status negotiations. He repeated these unprecedented remarks in various newspaper interviews and an article in Haaretz, giving rise to speculation that the quiet academician is once again serving as Arafat’s point man.

Nusseibeh’s remarks, which have been well received in American Jewish circles, and a poll undertaken by prominent Palestinian pollster Dr Khalil Shikaki that showed Palestinian support for reconciliation remained slightly lower than a year ago, 73 per cent in July 2001, down from 75 per cent in July 2000, rekindled hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.