Silencing Powell: Between American Reticence and Israeli Intransigence

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More than anyone else, Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon has been bent on repeatedly snubbing the US administration and proving that American patronage and generosity deserve only a thumb-on-nose response.

More than anyone else, the US has systematically lost in standing, influence, stature, and interests as a result of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands, its behavior with utter lawlessness and impunity, and the blanket support and protection provided by the US as a matter of routine and policy.

The early days of the Bush administration witnessed a “hands-off” policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (or variously, peace process), hence giving Sharon and his extremist hard-line government the green light to wreak havoc in the region and to deal death and destruction to the captive Palestinians.

Gradually, and as Arab leaders began to feel the tremors of massive public discontent and with the rising toll in Palestinian lives, lands, and livelihood, the American administration began to feel the need to intervene-however reluctantly.

At first, the “engagement” took the form of modest visits by Secretary Powell, then Assistant Secretary Burns, then Dep. Assist. Sec. Satterfield; while CIA chief George Tenet’s involvement brought forth the famous “Tenet Plan” that is yet to be implemented as a security prelude to the inherited “Mitchell Report” recommendations.

A few American “slaps on the wrist” were deemed necessary when Israeli excesses became too flagrant to be ignored. Not only did they go unheeded, but were read by the Sharon government as a perfunctory exercise that encouraged further violations.

Among the glaring Israeli “indiscretions” requiring verbal American censure were: the use of American gun ships, F16’s, and missiles to shell and bomb the Palestinians and their homes and lands; the formal and actual adoption of a policy of assassinations targeting Palestinian activists and political leaders; military incursions and invasions targeting “areas A” (Palestinian towns and cities); ongoing and escalating settlement activities; the stifling internal and external siege of Palestinian areas; and the growing number of Palestinian victims, particularly women and children and other innocent civilians, killed by the Israeli army and settlers.

Israel took note, and proceeded to do more of the same with impunity and with a no-holds-barred attitude, obviously encouraged by the American propensity to adopt Israel’s spin on “how to blame the Palestinians for everything and get away with it.”

Thus tremendous pressures were brought to bear on the Palestinians to declare and implement a “ceasefire” or to bring about (miraculously) a period of calm, regardless of the ongoing Israeli assaults, siege, assassinations, and all forms of brutal provocations.

In the meantime, Israel transformed the Mitchell and Tenet plans into a sequential, conditional process, maneuvering in such a way as to place itself as sole arbiter while manufacturing impossible preconditions-such as the seven days of absolute quiet.

Not only did it destroy the Mitchell proposals’ essence as a comprehensive, simultaneous package, it also managed to isolate “security” issues from any political or legal context while placing the onus solely on the Palestinian side.

Secretary Powell’s Kentucky speech on November 19 clearly articulated new benchmarks for American policy in the area, particularly in singling out the Israeli occupation as the source of violence, instability, and injustice and in clearly affirming that it “must end.” Equally important is his reiteration that an independent and viable state of “Palestine” is part of the American vision and policy for the region. By reiterating the Madrid terms of reference (UN resolutions 242 and 338, and the land-for-peace equation), Powell made clear the legal foundations and principles that must govern the resolution of the conflict.

In addressing the policies and measures of the occupation, however, Powell toned down his discourse, which seemed rather apologetic in contrast to the harsh and detailed tirade against the Palestinians. It is noteworthy that in detailing Palestinian “violations,” Powell waxed humanistic and immediate, identifying specific cases in detail and using the active voice to allocate blame. In addressing Israeli abuses, Powell waxed vague and distant, resorting to generalities while adopting the passive voice to avoid direct expression of Israeli culpability.

Nevertheless, he managed to select some of the most glaring Israeli violations and excesses for direct censure, mainly the occupation’s “checkpoints and raids and indignities,” as well as the fact that “too many innocent Palestinians, including children, have been killed and wounded.”
Stating that “Palestinians must also be secure and in control of their individual lives and collective security,” Powell alluded to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the destructive reality that has defined Palestinian-Israeli realities and attitudes, concluding that “the occupation must end.” With the same decisiveness he blasted Israel’s ongoing settlement policy, “settlement activity must stop.”

Sharon’s response was predictably self-contradictory. Welcoming Powell’s speech, he immediately hijacked it in order to impose his own interpretation on some key issues. First he insisted on the myth of the “seven days’ complete quiet” as a “test” of the Palestinian Authority’s commitment before proceeding to actual talks, while giving the Israeli occupation army a free hand to deal death and destruction on the Palestinian people and to pursue a lethal policy of unbridled provocation.
Second, adopting an absolutist stance, he reiterated the Israeli government’s illegal and ideological view of occupied Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of Israel.”

To demonstrate further arrogance and non-compliance, Sharon sanctioned the establishment of new settlements, and proceeded to practice on the ground what can only be described as a deliberate sabotage not only of the American mission but also of any hope for restoring confidence or the chances of peace in the future.

Pursuing an immoral and destructive policy of assassination (as a publicly declared political instrument), Sharon unleashed the might of the Israeli army against individual Palestinian activists, thus provoking the Palestinian people as a whole and inviting retaliation. The Israeli army also planted explosive and booby traps that led to the collective murder of Palestinian children, while army snipers contributed their share. To add to the horror, the Sharon government escalated its shelling of Palestinian homes and institutions, destroyed more crops and trees, and carried out several incursions into Palestinian towns (classified as “Area A”). Simultaneously, it maintained and intensified its cruel and inhuman siege as a massive attempt at the individual and collective humiliation of the Palestinian people while destroying their livelihood and every aspect of “normal” life.

When the then Secretary of State James Baker used to visit Palestine in preparation for the Madrid peace process, the Shamir government’s response then was to impose a strict closure and to build a new settlement with each visit in order to spite him. At one point we felt compelled to ask him to refrain from visiting us, regardless of our hospitality, because the price was exorbitant.

Sharon’s strategy seems to be similar: to take each criticism and stance expressed by Powell and to proceed immediately to do the opposite. The question is not whether he will succeed in spiting Powell, but whether he will achieve his objective of silencing him and dictating the Israeli agenda on the new American moves, should Sharon allow them to proceed.

Sharon’s agenda is no secret. Preempt and scuttle any attempts at restoring negotiations by manufacturing impossible preconditions and by creating a situation of intense instability, hostility, and violence that would abort the American mission while blaming the Palestinians. Should matters come to the actual implementation of tasks required of Israel (as in the Mitchell Report and the Powell speech), mainly the cessation of all settlement activities, then the unholy alliance of the Sharon coalition government will collapse, with Netanyahu outflanking Sharon from the right. Given the disarray in the “peace camp” and the absence of any serious opposition to the dangerous and extremist policies of the current Israeli government, Sharon feels free to shift gears towards even more extreme policies and measures.

In the meantime, the Palestinians continue to pay an increasingly painful and intolerable price. In the confrontation of power between the US and Israel, the test is between American reticence and Israeli arrogance. Granted, the US administration has to watch its back as Sharon unleashes his hard line forces within the domestic American arena, playing the special interest groups and the powerful lobby game, it remains up to American decision makers to decide on the priority of national interests over narrow self interest.

Ultimately, the battle of wills is over the independence of American decision-making, over American national interests as opposed to the liability of Israeli intransigence, and over a global rule of law that would serve international stability and peace versus Israeli impunity and lawlessness.

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