Powell’s Blunder

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Before meeting President Bush for the second time since the beginning of his current mandate, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made some conspicuous declarations to “Newsweek’s” reporter Lally Weymouth, which if they were not a scoop for those who know the general and his recent past lately refreshed by the well informed BBC’s Panorama, proved one more time to what extent the man is determined in his heinous dealings with the Palestinians. First, Sharon repeated tirelessly his old refrain about Arafat playing with terror”, ruling ” a coalition of terror”, ” coordinating with Hizbullah”, ” getting used to negotiating under terror”… etc, before ending up with ” I think Arafat is an obstacle to peace”. Secondly, when he was asked whether he accepts Oslo- the peace process launched in 1993- or is it dead, Sharon said simply: ” Oslo didn’t bring peace. It didn’t bring security.” So what ? Sharon did not hesitate to tell Weymouth what was really on his mind: He was not going to make a deal with someone he despises and hates and considers as the head of a “terrorist organization”! There is more of this stuff in the complete story, but here one must only underline that when Sharon talks this way, he is not forcing his nature or giving some hawkish hard-line hefty portrait of himself. The man is really made that way, and at his age he is not going to change in order to meet the American or the world expectations. Even the European attitude – which never was really hard on Israel- seems to him “unbalanced”- sic!- as long as it is not servile, since he is expecting everybody to be at his orders. Perhaps even Secretary of State Colin Powell!

The latter made an “unforgivable mistake – a lese majeste crime – that earned him to be snubbed by Sharon who merely canceled a scheduled meeting with him on Friday. The Secretary of State headed to Amman , but not before pulling back from his initial position. No reason was given for the change, but an Israeli official said “Powell and Sharon completed their discussions”! What was actually reproached to the American Minister concerned a declaration he had made after a meeting with Arafat, which was immediately reported and published by the press. Thus, the damage – if any – was done, so to say. Powell said: ” I think there is clear understanding of the need for monitors and observers to see what is happening”. Those monitors would go to points of friction between Palestinians and Israelis and serve as go-betweens to resolve disputes and make independent reports. That has always been an Arab request supported by the European Union. But Washington had twice blocked a UN resolution about sending such a mission to the great bitterness of the Arabs. The Saudis reacted particularly angrily: The heir to the throne, Prince Abdallah rejected an invitation to the White House. The Saudi news network habitually moderate and never keen on shaking or molesting the good relationship with the American ally, felt utterly provoked by the American incomprehensible attitude which was – and so far still is – harshly attacked and dissected in the kingdom: No matter what are the Arabs saying, Washington seems unable to listen to them!

However, Sharon’s answer was not long to come. He merely dismissed as “mostly” unnecessary the idea of observers overseeing the steps Israel and the Palestinians would take. ” I think it is much simpler than that”, said he. ” For example, when a school is attacked the action is seen clearly”! Of course, but what is he afraid of then?

Anyway, it was not much glorious of Powell to deny what everybody heard him saying as soon as Sharon’s murderous eyes went blood-shot with furor. He succeeded only to lose the little confidence he had gathered from his meeting with Arafat. Otherwise, he undermined his own chance of success and brought the case back to the zero. Either in Washington or in the Israeli government, the bells went ringing the alert! It was “worse ” than any declaration a Secretary of State could make: it was an assessment of a new foreign policy… a policy that was going to give fair balance to both parties in implementing an impartial structure of independent observers as a first step to holding the cease fire. What then ? Was Powell oblivious of the “basics” in dealing with the Arabs? Was he going to play against his own camp? An op-ed of the israeli newspaper “Ha’aretz” published on June 28- the day he left for Amman – pretended to reminding him of these ” basics” under the resounding and pompous title: Ten recommendations for a new Secretary of State! An article full of pretension and quite “well in the line” of israeli self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, Powell had already abdicated and said: “there was no intention of my part to surprise” Sharon. So, no US policy shift. No independent observers that would not be accepted by “both” parties: e.g. by Israel! For Sharon made it clear: ” We never supported UN observers” , and more to the point: ” We never accepted European observers. I don’t think they are needed”!

They aren’t, indeed! This said, one does not know who is the most foolish : a Secretary of State going rashly against the double veto of his government and promising what after a quarter of an hour – a difficult one doubtless!- he would merely deny, or a Prime Minister expecting the whole world to be at his orders- Americans, Europeans, and -to be sure- stone throwing children in the Palestinian streets included!

There is an Arab proverb saying: ” a single madman is able to drive mad a whole group”! Here is the illustration of the case: Whether in the chaotic Middle East, or in the cold minded Europe, or even in the Bush administration that is pushing forward the shaky crinkled old peace carriage, on those rude unpaved paths, nobody knows exactly what is going on or where Sharon is heading to and driving everybody with him. To L. Weymouth, he said such contradictory things that it is almost impossible to tell whether they emanated from a single person or from several! Look at these examples:

An Israeli analyst wrote in Ha’aretz that the “Prime Minister is a split man “! For he is struggling between his “military past “- either as a palmach terrorist or a supervisor of Sabra and Chatila slaughter – and his responsibility as head of the Israeli Cabinet! Yet, if the Israelis think that a schizo-paranoiac is worth leading their state, nobody then can do anything for them: Neither the US, despite their willingness to act on their behalf, nor the UN whom they despise, nor the Europeans whom they deem enemies !

Then what?

It is no secret that some analysts in Israel itself believe that Sharon went to Washington with the ill hidden purpose of gaining understanding from the Bush administration ahead of a possible harsh israeli action against the Palestinian Authority should it become clear that a total cease-fire has not taken effect. Nothing can be actually more resembling to Sharon who acknowledged that he has not changed and that he held Arafat as an obstacle to peace. And nothing can convince the PA of the incredibility of such an endeavor more than an invitation for its Chairman to visit the White House. But the American administration is reluctant, and such reluctance empowers the conspiracy scenario.

Let’s not be fooled by Arafat non acceptance of the israeli conditions concerning the eventual arrest of Hamas and Jihad activists. Should Israel give him what he asked for, he would jail even the old and disabled Sheikh Yassine , the spiritual leader of the Islamist organization. But for the time being, he has no interest to do so. Thus, if Sharon cannot bear the sight of Arafat ” playing between the jews”, as he put it, what makes him think that the latter would allow him ” to play between the Palestinians” ? For he made it clear that he would not ” look for Hamas or for Islamic Jihad or any other parties because we respect these parties and there is a union between all of us “, as it was reported by Reuters. And if this acknowledgment means for the Israelis or the Americans that he has accepted his responsibility as to the suicide operations and other terrorist acts, he would not mind. This is the point, and this is the deadlock in spite of the rumors about cease-fire and successful diplomatic meddling.

Can Bush administration admit these facts? For a real will to reach an agreement has to stick to the reality in order to be effective, instead of jumping above or ignoring it. When Bill Clinton invited the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders to a garden party in the White House making a worldwide publicized feast of the event on the day the Oslo agreement was signed, the Palestinians did not bathe their leader in some chemical product able to wipe out his past in order to be acceptable to the Establishment. They sent him as he was , or as he had always liked to introduce himself: an olive branch in one hand, and a gun in the other. Thus, we have to acknowledge that neither Arafat nor Sharon have changed. This is to make the task a bit more complicated to the peace mediators.

Recently, Denis Ross , Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East, said: ” You can’t require the Palestinians to do more than they’re capable of doing … You can’t look at the number of incidents per day and say they’re there yet. If they’re allowed to slide, you’re going to see a continuation of past behavior, where they didn’t perform on their commitments.”

This is only to show how ridiculous is the israeli condition of total calm , were it even for twenty four hours not to speak of ten days. Some observers in the USA underlined the rift between the American and the israeli positions. ” Washington’s emphasis on (100 percent effort) in reducing violence, compared to Israel’s more demanding emphasis on (100 percent results) by the Palestinians, seemed to be more than diplomatic niceties”, wrote New York Time’s Jane Perlez. Yet, on the ground the American position wants clear translation, which was not helped by the surprising shift of Colin Powell, and was even far more less so by Mr. Fleischer, White House spokesman, pretending that Powell’s comment was a restatement of long-standing US policy and was in no way an endorsement of Palestinian demands!

Here the situation is no longer ridiculous, but even hilarious! For if that was a “long standing US policy” , why on earth did Powell deny it after his first declaration? And if it was not, what pushed Fleischer to assuring that it was?

Blunders of that sort and size, if they do not make a sound and credible foreign policy, at least succeeds in earning more suspicion about it. That is may be what Mr. Powell would find out alone on his way home. And if he succeeds while stopping in Paris to make another angry – : e.g. Prince Abdallah Ibn Abdelaziz- instead of allaying him, then he would be The Champion!

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.

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