The context of Powell’s mission

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It is easy to miss the larger regional and domestic context of United States Secretary of State Powell’s mission to achieve an Israeli- Palestinian ceasefire. Obviously, the US is worried about the escalation in Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and Israel’s relatively large-scale military responses. Obviously, the US would have liked to push the sides toward serious conflict resolution. But these aren’t the main reasons for the recent dramatic reversal in the policy of President George W. Bush toward the level and intensity of American mediation.

During the 2000 presidential elections and from the beginning of his tenure at the White House, Bush said he would avoid what he defined as a fatal mistake on the part of President Clinton of getting so personally and intensely involved in Arab-Israeli conflict resolution. Bush argued that Clinton’s repeated failures reflected badly both on America’s standing in the Middle East and the world and on the office of the presidency. Unlike Clinton, who defined Arab-Israeli peace as the most important goal of his administration and saw himself as a genuine peacemaker, Bush has adopted other values and other goals. Consequently, until very recently he sent to the area relatively low level officials such as General Anthony Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns.

Bush reluctantly reversed his position primarily due to the requirements of his plan to eliminate the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It is quite possible that if this plan had not existed, Bush would not have reversed his policy on US involvement in the present crisis, and Powell would not have traveled to the region. The number one priority in US foreign policy today is the global war on terrorism, and the current number one priority in this war is the plan to complete the 1991 Gulf War by eliminating Saddam Hussein’s threats to the region and the world. Following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, the Bush administration is convinced that if Saddam acquires weapons of mass destruction he would not hesitate to employ them against the US and its allies in the Middle East. Hence the need for preventive action against Iraq.

The Bush administration is attempting to mobilize support among its Arab allies for a military attack on Saddam, or at a minimum to obtain a commitment from them to voice only token criticism of a possible American attack. This was the main purpose of Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent visit to the Middle East. Arab leaders told him that they could not deal with the Saddam issue until the Palestinian-Israeli violence was resolved. Thus, it could be said that from an American perspective this violence is hindering the campaign against Saddam. Seen in this context, the reversal in Bush’s stance, the upgrading of US involvement, and the sending of Powell to the region are justified because they are all intended to remove a serious obstacle on the road to Baghdad.

Possible US determination to achieve a ceasefire is directly related to the larger context and the highest priorities of American policy in the Middle East. This rationale notwithstanding, even if the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation is miraculously resolved in the very near future, Arab leaders, even those aligned with the US, are unlikely to support a military action against Saddam. But until then they are likely to use the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation as an excuse to refrain from taking a clear stand on Saddam.

Powell’s mission is extremely difficult because the key to any ceasefire is an effective campaign by Arafat against terrorism launched from his territories, while the US has more leverage over Israel. Every Palestinian act of terror is further eroding support for the Palestinians both among official Washington and public opinion. Contrary to public statements, the Bush people consider Arafat a terrorist who has never lived up to his commitments and who is systematically cheating and lying to them. Bush feels that while he and his aids have strongly advocated in public the establishment of a Palestinian state, Arafat has been encouraging and glorifying terrorism with the help of Iraq and Iran.

Bush cannot ignore American public opinion, which overwhelmingly favors Israel. Despite negative media coverage of Israeli military activities, in the latest Gallup poll an overwhelming 70% to 24% of Americans say that Palestinian violence is terrorism, while a majority of 53% to 39% say Israeli violence is a legitimate act of war. While Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians by a 50% to 15% margin, Republicans, members of Bush’s party, identify more with Israel over the Palestinians by a 67% to 8% margin.

All these external and internal conditions leave only narrow margins for Powell’s diplomacy in the Middle East.

Eytan Gilboa, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, is currently a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His most recent book is an edited volume: Media and Conflict (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2002).

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