Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2002, page 18

Affairs of State

Witnessing a War for Peace in Afghanistan And a War for Conquest in Palestine

By Eugene Bird

Secretary of State Colin Powell has emerged from his three-month-long secondary role of waging and witnessing a war for peace and against terrorism. As the first phase of that war wound down, Secretary Powell began appearing on talk shows and giving interviews which indicated that he, at least, remained concerned about the potential for the Palestinian intifada to become a rallying cry by Islamic radicals. His new role—marked by a meeting in Tokyo that included Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as the usual European donor nations—was to mobilize a coalition for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

One of his main contributions to the war effort was the appointment of Gen. Anthony Zinni to tamp down the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Even that small and faltering step, however, was taken only under pressure of Saudi Arabia in particular, a key member in the coalition against terrorism.

When the secretary of state’s pinch hitter returned from his second short visit to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Yasser Arafat, the general chose to overfly Washington and go directly to California for some other, private appointment. Nothing could better demonstrate that the Bush administration—if it has a plan at all—is still waiting for a better moment politically and diplomatically to become fully engaged and crack some heads on both sides.

Of course, the Zinni mission was a stopgap measure meant to demonstrate American “engagement” in the Palestine problem and was aimed in part at making it unnecessary for the secretary of state to travel himself and meet with Arafat and Sharon. As Ambassador David Mack of the Middle East Institute put it, “It is meant to keep our foot in the door.”

During General Zinni’s mission, Secretary Powell spoke frequently with both Prime Minister Sharon and President Arafat, particularly after the Karin A. munitions ship incident in January. The mission to end the violence was set back sharply by what the Department described as “compelling” evidence that major figures in the Palestine Authority were responsible. When it was suggested that the ship may have been bound for Lebanon, however, Secretary Powell replied, “It seems logical to me.”

In Washington, the dismal prospects following the January “Ship of Fools” incident with the Karin A, and the massive attacks on the civilian population of Rafah have left a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Hope may return in the spring, if some of the nonviolent proposals for continuing the intifada are allowed to bloom, but no one counts on that happening.

A Free Rein for Sharon

Sharon has been turned loose to do what he can to force the Palestinians into a corner and capitulate, giving over land and East Jerusalem for a surly peace. “Sharon has gone too far in the demolition of homes, even for some of his own members of government,” said Jerusalem attorney Jonathan Kuttab when he was in Washington recently. “But he will be seeking frantically for some new ways to provoke the Palestinian population.”

The various peace activists in Israel and those Palestinians clustered around Sari Nusseibeh still face a whirlwind of public anger on both sides. Nor is Washington building a coalition aimed at tackling one root cause of terrorism, the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the Jewish state’s claim to exclusive sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem.

When asked whether or not the U.S. had raised with the government of Israel the issue of its massive retaliatory policy, which has escalated inexorably since Sharon took office, State Department spokesmen only repeat the same formula used many times before to excuse Israeli actions: “The Israelis are aware of the American position that demolition of houses is not helpful to ending the violence.”

“Israel imports arms to defend itself,” one State Department official, irritated at being pressed about an equal right for the Palestinians, said off the record. European and Egyptian correspondents, however, particularly Reuters’ Jonathan Wright, have been confronting the department with the obvious contradiction. This was after Israel’s most massive demolition operation to date, the Jan. 10 attack on Rafah.

The Colombian Comparison

While the Department of State can and frequently does complain about violations of civil rights in other parts of the world—notably Colombia—it apparently cannot bring itself to condemn the targeting of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military.

On the day Israel demolished 70 homes in Rafah, Palestine, President Bush signed a new and tougher aid program for the Colombian government’s fight against FARC rebels. The American president specifically called on Bogota to bring to justice those among its military who have participated in human rights violations, and upon the Colombian military to sever its ties with the militia and actually capture these militia terrorists.

For the first time, Sen. Patrick Leahy was able to get Congress to agree on tough monitoring of Colombia by the secretary of state and make the distribution of aid dependent on the government’s performance in bringing the known culprits to justice. Sixty percent of the aid to Colombia will be dispersed after Secretary Powell confirms to Congress that Bogoa is pursuing those individuals responsible for the violations. The remaining 40 percent of U.S. aid will be withheld until the secretary confirms that the cases have been turned over to civil authorities for prosecution and the renegade militias brought under control. Tough provisions, indeed.

Israeli Abuses Ignored

By contrast, no aid restrictions have been placed on the Israeli government, whose troops are almost daily attacking in one form or another the civilian population in Gaza and the West Bank. Instead, the Department of State must ignore these Israeli violations and defer to Sharon’s judgment on how to end the intifada until such a time as George W. Bush recognizes that it would be popular with the American public to place similar restrictions on aid to Israel as a part of the war on terrorism.

The president also may want to remember who his friends are. At the Washington, DC mosque visited by President Bush in December, one Pakistani-American leader got close enough to him to say.” Mr. President, did you know that 72 percent of the Muslims voted for you in Florida?” According to someone who observed the encounter, the president looked pained if not shaken by the question, and did not reply.

Tragically for Israelis and Palestinians alike, so long as Sharon is in power and unrestrained by America, the growing desire among Palestinians, particularly on the West Bank, to switch the intifada solely to a peaceful track will continue to be thwarted.

Eugene Bird is president of the Council for the National Interest and diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,.

The Secretary of State’s Changing Tune

Dec. 13, 2001 Press Conference

Q: “You said last spring that the Israelis shouldn’t intrude into Gaza with their tanks and remain there. They are doing just that now. Has there been any limit placed on collective punishment in your discussions with Sharon both here in Washington and beyond?

Secretary Powell: “We have—Mr. Sharon is the Prime Minister democratically elected by the people of Israel. So we have talked to him, and I talked to him again yesterday, and he is aware of our concerns about going back into these territories and staying there for extended periods. Does it actually provide you security over time, or is it just another destabilizing element? So, obviously, we are not in a position to put specific constraints on him. But we are in constant discussion about the implications of such actions.”

Interview with Secretary Powell in Jan. 8, 2002 Washington Times:

“No, the first thing we had to do was to get security for the people of Israel, security for the people in the region, so that a cease-fire can come in place, and then we can find a basis to move forward to confidence-building and then negotiations to create a state for the Palestinian people, living side by side next to a Jewish state called Israel. I have not lost that vision, that hope. The president laid it out in my speech. Gen. [Anthony] Zinni has been acting on that vision and will continue to do so.”

—E.B.

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