Moving toward a strategy?

With the direct intervention of United States Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the United States appears finally to be moving toward a strategy. Yet there remain vestiges of alternative thinking that reflect the dilemmas and divisions that characterize the thinking of the administration of George W. Bush on the Middle East.

The administration’s initial approach to dealing with the region was to deliberately avoid adopting a strategy: keep intervention relatively low level by sending emissaries like Anthony Zinni without giving them a strong mandate, and avoid dangerous initiatives.

The advantage of this approach was that it precluded any likelihood of a spectacular diplomatic failure like that registered by Bill Clinton in the final months of his presidency. It also faithfully reflected the administration’s essential lack of interest in the Israeli-Arab dispute.

The drawback was that it did not provide solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, while the situation deteriorated. Washington argued with declining credibility to its Arab friends and to Europe that it was “taking the lead” in searching for a solution. Eventually the administration appeared to recognize that the crisis had dangerous ramifications for its Arab friends and rendered it increasingly difficult for the US to concentrate on its primary objective of removing Saddam Hussein from power.

The second option confronted by the Bush team, particularly after September 11, 2001, was to support the anti-terrorism policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: operations like the current Defensive Shield in the West Bank and possibly even the eventual removal and replacement of Yasir Arafat.

The advantage of the pro-Sharon policy approach is that it is popular with key sectors of the US electorate and is consistent in terms of American treatment of terrorist leaders–in this case, Arafat. But this option is anathema to Washington’s European and Arab friends and endangers massive American interests in the region. Nor is it likely to succeed in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; indeed, it poses the twin dangers of regional instability and of local escalation. Things are likely to be worse, not better, without Arafat.

Ostensibly Powell’s current mission to the region means that the administration has now abandoned this position–which, however righteous, simply doesn’t work. Powell’s approach recognizes that the Israeli-Palestinian violence revolves primarily around a territorial dispute, and must be dealt with politically as well as militarily. But there may be those in the hawkish wing of the administration who dissent. Witness, for example, the delay in Powell’s arrival for a week, and the silence of Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at a time when the president, Powell and National Security Advisor Rice were loudly demanding that Sharon yield to American pressure and cease the operation.

Here we arrive at the current American initiative, which appears to be seeking an integrated regional strategy of political intervention. Possible courses of action broached in recent days include convening a “Madrid II” summit to discuss the Arab League-approved Saudi initiative, working through the United Nations Security Council, readying an international observer force to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and galvanizing Arab pressure on Arafat to coincide with American pressure on Sharon.

The danger of pursuing this option is that it is so ambitious. Failure might redound negatively on US prestige in the region and on its effort to coordinate Arab acquiescence with an attack on Iraq. And failure is a real possibility, given that neither Sharon nor Arafat appears to be a candidate for a realistic peace agreement. Hence Washington might eventually find itself being called upon to lead the world in imposing an extremely complex territorial settlement on two unwilling partners.

Unwilling, indeed. Sharon’s endorsement of an international meeting of some sort is conditioned on Arafat not being invited at all; he wants the agenda to center on his non-starter proposal for an open-ended interim agreement formalizing the territorial status quo. Arafat and Sharon cannot agree on the sequence of commencing ceasefire and withdrawal talks. New suicide bombings, with Arafat’s implicit blessing, are a near certainty. Thus discussion of a regional dimension is liable to remain pie-in-the-sky unless Powell can begin clearing away the destructive legacy of 18 months’ fighting on the ground.

Meanwhile, the interaction between the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and US designs on Iraq is, if anything, growing. One possible objective of horrific Palestinian terrorist acts is precisely to keep the Arab-Israel pot boiling and foil administration plans to recruit regional support for toppling Saddam Hussein. Similarly, Iran sponsors Hizbollah’s escalation of fighting in Israel’s north to keep the US preoccupied with the Levant rather than the Gulf. Yet Sharon’s failure to pursue a realistic political course also renders it more difficult for Washington to realize its objectives in the Gulf.

The attraction of the regional option is precisely the notion that, by “Arabizing” the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the US can lead the region in bypassing the intransigent local leaders, who have no constructive ideas for peace. The very effort invested in such an enterprise might win points for Washington and free its hand to deal with Iraq. And the war weary Israeli and Palestinian populations are ripe for a compromise deal.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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