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Powell Peace Mission a Red Herring

10 April 2002

Morrocan King Mohammed's question to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell when they met in Agadir was uncomfortably perceptive, almost as perceptive as the famous question posed by the small boy about the naked emperor.

"Don't you think" asked King Mohammed, "it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?"

Powell's reply was a defensive, "We considered all options."

Even before it really starts, President George Bush's Middle Eastern peace initiative is unraveling.

The problem isn't the obvious one, namely that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon isn't paying the least attention a few gestures aside to either Bush or to the U.S. for all its, and Bush's, power.

As was downright humiliating for him, Bush had to go into his eyes scrunched-up stern act "I meant what I said" (about an immediate Israeli withdrawal) to get Sharon to pull back a bit, although not very far, from a couple of refugee camps, even while other Israeli troops entered other Palestinian towns.

Sharon's behavior was entirely predictable. He's always believed that Israel's security depends upon raw force and power rather than upon the goodwill of others; the Palestinians and Arabs obviously so, but even including the Americans.

At least as important a determinant of Sharon's behavior he's not called "The Bulldozer" for nothing is that his unleashing of Israel's overwhelming military power against the Palestinians is hugely popular among Israelis. Indeed, Sharon's resort to all-out force is also widely popular among ordinary Americans, which puts severe limits to the amount of pressure Bush can impose on Sharon as Sharon well knows, and Bush likewise.

Whether this military assault will actually succeed is entirely another question. Sharon has defined its purpose as to "destroy the infrastructure of the terrorists."

In fact, that infrastructure has always been minimal: Destructive bombs can be made easily and cheaply. Conspicuously, Israeli forces have uncovered neither great caches of weapons, nor any sophisticated weapons at all.

The infrastructure that matters exists, instead, in the hearts of ordinary Palestinians, and also, increasingly, of other Arabs. It can't be bombed out of the people. Indeed, by killing and wounding hundreds of ordinary Palestinians, the Israeli assault has multiplied many times over the numbers of potential suicide bombers.

Increasingly, outside observers such as the Red Cross warn of an impending "human catastrophe" in the West Bank, where thousands of Palestinians, many of them wounded, are struggling to survive without food, water, medical supplies.

This, though, is a test of will and nerve and courage and as well of fanaticism between Israelis and Palestinians. Each side and, to a degree, each side justifiably is convinced that the other will not allow it to exist.

Compared with the intensity of this contest, Bush's intervention had to be a sideshow.

As sideshows go, though, the manner of Bush's intervention has made his effort less substantial, and more ineffective, than need have been the case.

His principal objective is to achieve a sufficient quiet between Israelis and Palestinians to allow him to attack Iraq and to depose Saddam Hussein later this year.

This, though, has nothing whatever to do with the Palestinians and, only indirectly, has anything much to do with the Israelis.

It affects principally the so-called moderate Arabs such as the king of Morocco whose support, or at least silence, Bush needs before attacking Iraq.

This explains Powell's circuitous approach to Jerusalem (viat Cairo, after a curious side trip to Spain).

Except that these moderate Arabs are concerned not with Saddam but with the Palestinians, or, more exactly, with the concern for the Palestinians being expressed by their publics who are increasingly angry at their own governments for their passivity.

The famed "Arab street" opinion, after being largely silent during the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, is now driving the opinion of moderate Arab governments. "U.S. credibility and prestige are collapsing quickly in the region," Saudi foreign policy adviser Adel al Jubeir warned Powell when he met him in Agadir.

Powell's mission thus has effectively shrunk down to trying to patch up relations with the governments of the Arab states the U.S. will need for its attack on Iraq.

This attempt by Washington to avoid the Palestinian issue and, even more obviously, to avoid Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is the root cause of the problem Bush has created for himself.

In essence, Bush is interested only in Baghdad, not in Ramallah or Nablus or Jenin, or even in Jerusalem. Everyone in the Middle East knows this, Sharon included. So they're not all that interested in Bush, or in his emissary, Powell.

Richard Gwyn
Published in the Toronto Star © 2002 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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