In Powell’s wake

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US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the Middle East disappointed those who had hoped that the US might show a more balanced commitment to reviving the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process.

Powell’s only achievement was to get the two sides to accept a shaky truce. The Powell plan called for a “week-long test period of calm,” to be followed by a six-week “cooling-off” period before beginning several months of confidence-building measures to pave the way for a return to the negotiating table. Essentially, this was a repeat of the Sharon formula for ending the Intifada. It offered no substantial guarantees that Palestinian demands would be met, and allowed Sharon to choose when negotiations could resume.

Powell’s hands, of course, were tied. Reports that Bush had a full-fledged peace plan to put to Sharon during their recent meeting in Washington were ill-founded, and the US quickly caved in to Sharon’s position that there could be no further negotiations until the Palestinians ended all violence. With Israeli obstinacy dictating US policy, it is little wonder that the US Secretary of State could contribute little to halting spiraling tensions. He left the region frustrated at his inability to make any progress.

This would not have been the case had the US administration not placed itself so wholeheartedly behind Sharon’s refusal to “reward” Arafat by resuming negotiations before the Intifada ended. Not only is this position a blatant obfuscation of the fact that the Intifada is an expression of the Palestinians’ internationally sanctioned right to resist foreign occupation, but by catering to it the US encourages Israel’s worst excesses.

Washington has always been an easy target for Tel Aviv’s emotional blackmail. Even with the Palestinian death toll and the tightening of the economic blockade staring everyone in the face Sharon somehow persuaded US officials that Israel is the victim and succeeded in obtaining yet more promises of US political, economic and military support.

Sharon asked the US to have no further dealings with Arafat, whom he alleges is responsible for “Palestinian terrorism,” and suggested that Arafat and other PA officials be removed from office to make room for “true representatives” of the Palestinian people. Did the US administration simply bob its head as Israeli Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, in Washington at the same time as Sharon, leveled the same absurd charge against Arafat and the PA and expressed doubts about the possibility of reaching a cease-fire, hinting that Israel had not yet deployed its full military might against the Palestinians?

Sharon is adamant in his refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians until he — a known warmonger openly hostile to the principles of any realistic settlement — has determined that the Intifada is over. Sharon’s desire to supplant the principle of “land for peace” with “security for peace” reflects an outlook born of arrogance. It is not a recipe for reviving the peace process.

More alarming are reports of plans for an all-out Israeli strike against the West Bank and Gaza, with the purpose of precipitating the collapse of the PA and physically liquidating its leadership.

Reports indicate that the plans– which will unleash tank, air and sea fire against PA institutions and targets, in particular, Rafah, Hebron, Jenin — await only a green light from the Israeli leadership. Sharon informed the US administration of the plans during his visit to Washington.

Israel’s army command should not, however, anticipate an easy foray. There is certain to be strong resistance by the Palestinian people and casualties will be high on both sides. In the longer run, it will intensify the cycle of violence. Resistance operations will become far more violent than anything that has taken place over the past nine months, with the attendant risk that violence will spill over into neighbouring areas and flare out of control.

Any hopes for ending the cycle of violence and reviving prospects for peace and regional stability will not be realised by catering to the logic of Israel’s extremist government, which seeks to bring matters to a head by bringing the region to the brink of war while casting the blame on the Palestinians and the Arabs.

The only sane alternative is to intensify international and regional pressures upon Israel in order to expose and forestall its belligerence. There are many avenues towards this end. Most important for the Arabs is to step up their level of political and economic support to the PA and the Palestinian people and to coordinate more effectively in exploiting all available diplomatic and media channels to rally international support for the cause of peace. It will require the highest levels of resolve and cool-headedness to confront the perilous snowballing generated by Israeli obstinacy. President Hosni Mubarak was clear on this point when he told me in a telephone conversation a few days ago: “We must never give in to pessimism. We must remain persistent in our efforts to reach a solution and we must continue to pursue the course of dialogue… The situation is complex and highly sensitive, but to let up on our efforts to contain it will only help the situation to spin out of control and lead to more violence.”

Egypt refuses to be drawn into military confrontation, although its army is equipped and poised for self-defence. Military escalation can serve no other purpose than to threaten efforts to realise stability and development in the region. Instead, Egypt is committed to using all possible diplomatic channels to ensure that the principles of international law prevail in resolving the crisis in the Middle East. If Israel remains unwilling to accept these principles, the Arabs possess many political and economic resources that can be used in the defence of the Palestinian people and Arab rights.

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