Powell’s ordeals and the coming test of wills

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All eyes have been focused on United States Secretary of State Colin Powell’s meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders in an effort to defuse a crisis that has the potential to menace regional stability. After delaying for eight days, with a threat in between to boycott Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, Colin Powell declared that the meeting with Arafat had been “useful and constructive.” The use of that standard diplomatic euphemism for lack of real progress should not be surprising, given the enormous built-in impediments to a viable settlement of the conflict. Most basic of these is that the peacemaker is also Israel’s co-belligerent, chief diplomatic backer, bank roller, and arms supplier.

It behooves all of us who wait anxiously for some sort of a breakthrough, to keep three factors in mind as we ponder the possibilities for a way out of a potentially-enlarged zero-sum situation. First, there is the historic legacy of US peacemaking in the area, second, the world-view of the self-designated sole conciliator, honest broker, and catalyst for peace and third, the Israeli strategy, its real objectives and perceptions of the end game.

The contacts and negotiations that will take place in the short-term will undoubtedly focus on the micro issues. But breaking the logjam is going to take much more than process, including denunciations, proclamations and cosmetic measures. The political horizon must be inextricably linked to the micro issues, with the later merely the necessary steps towards the political road map that already exists and is already anchored in a global consensus. The substance of that consensus has existed for thirty-five years–land for peace, end of the occupation, rollback of the colonial settlements, a Palestinian state alongside (not within) Israel and a just solution for the refugee problem in accordance with international law.

It is perhaps more important to “flesh out” the three factors that will help us understand why that consensus has been thwarted than to “flesh out” Arafat’s latest denunciatory statement, as the US has stated it will do.

First, there is a legacy of rejectionism on the part of the peacemaker and/or Israel, going back to 1969. Israel has managed to reject a number of United States proposals. The first casualty was the Rogers Plan (1969), followed by Israel’s frustration of Governor Scranton’s mission on behalf of Nixon (1970), the rejection of Egyptian President Sadat’s land for peace-mutual recognition proposal (1971), the rejection of President Carter’s call for a Geneva International conference in 1977, the Reagan plan of 1982, the Shultz Plan of 1988, the Baker plan of 1989, and the successful thwarting of Bush Sr.’s attempt to link loan guarantees to the issue of Jewish settlements in and around Jerusalem (1990). Obviously, the younger Bush remains keenly aware of his father’s ordeal as he now ponders the outcome of his own unheeded request for Sharon to withdraw “immediately” more than eleven days ago.

The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Arab states, on the other hand, have associated themselves with the basic elements of the global consensus expressed in countless documents, including the 1971 Sadat offer, the Security Council resolution of 1976 calling for implementation of Resolution 242 and a two-state solution, the 1980 Venice Declaration by the European countries recognizing Palestinian self- determination, the 1981 Fahd Plan, the 1988 PLO recognition of Israel, the 1998 European Union declaration, all the way up to the plan of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah adopted by the Arab League last month and offering full recognition of Israel in exchange for ending the Israeli occupation.

The second major barrier to a quick breakthrough is related to President Bush’s world view, a rather Hobbesian conception, which depicts a grim landscape in need of a firm hand to “smoke out” terrorists and terminate the scourge through the use of raw power. This muscular approach contrasts with the traditional means of relying on policing mechanisms, the judicial apparatus and monetary controls, among other diplomatic means, for routing terrorism.

Thus a major obstacle to a successful American mission is the spurious view that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s war against a civilian population is not a breech of the 1949 Geneva Convention–a war crime in the Nuremberg sense of the term–but a war to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. This myopic logic has resonated with the intellectually-impoverished mind of George W. Bush, who has hastened to applaud Sharon’s efforts perceived to reinforce Bush’s own crusade.

The pragmatists among Bush’s advisors, together with retired seasoned politicians such as Lee Hamilton and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as the editorial writers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, have warned the president of the negative long-term strategic implications of US complicity in Sharon’s onslaught. Hence the Powell mission. Still, opposing that advice is the dominant input of the right wing neo-conservatives who have the upper hand in the foreign policy- national security establishment–people like Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle.

The third impediment to a credible peace, even to a start of genuine negotiations, is Sharon’s own view of power and political realities. Under the pretext of dismantling the terrorist infrastructure, he launched an all-out onslaught designed to obliterate not only the Palestine Authority, but also the economic and political infrastructure of the Palestinians, including cultural, medical and humanitarian institutions, indeed all the ingredients of a nation-state. His campaign against terror has aimed at de- institutionalizing the Palestinians and preempting a state-in-waiting, a strategy employed in Lebanon twenty years ago.

As prime minister, Sharon has vigorously tried to browbeat the Palestinians into submission and end their uprising against the occupation for once and for all, forcing them either to accept a fragmented entity consisting of four bantustans under Israel’s control, or to leave the country. Expulsion, which is euphemistically known as “transfer” in Zionist literature, is now supported by nearly half of Israel’s population.

Thus, any attempts by Colin Powell to broker a settlement will come to naught unless the occupation is dismantled in accordance with international law and the global consensus. The negotiations would have to link the favored micro issues and the innocuous Tenet, Mitchell clichés to the real issues, including the status of Jerusalem, rights of refugees, water and borders. That settlement is currently being portrayed by neo-conservatives, the pro-Israel lobby and Israel’s men and women in Congress, led by presidential hopefuls Senators Kerry and Leiberman, as a sell-out of Israel, a cardinal sin in American politics. On the other side, there are the pragmatists who will no doubt push for a Madrid-style conference with a quid pro quo on Iraq. The final outcome will result from an ongoing test of domestic political will.

Naseer Aruri is Chancellor Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Darmouth.

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