Why is the Bush administration, after a period of benign neglect, suddenly interested in mediating the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian dispute? It’s hardly a news flash that it’s mainly because the administration is just itching to attack Iraq. But how realistic is the idea that the United States can play deus ex machina in the Middle East after all these years?
So Vice President Dick Cheney travels through the Middle East trying to garner support for a frontal attack on Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Meanwhile, former Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni dithers in Israel and Palestine to see whether some kind of accommodation can be reached to stop the mutual bloodletting that has reached alarming proportions during what the Associated Press calls "the largest military operation in 20 years" by the Israeli army.
SETTING THE STAGE
Everybody involved and most of the news media acknowledges that the two missions are closely related. As BBC Washington correspondent Tom Carver noted, Mr. Cheney "admitted before leaving that he would be asked at every stop about the Israeli-Palestinian issue." Mr. Cheney doesn’t have a blueprint for a settlement. But Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week, "We have a vision. We have a plan to solve this crisis but it begins with ending the violence."
Well, thanks Colin. Nobody ever thought of that before. Ending the violence. What a brilliant, novel idea. Now if you just had some notion about how to end the violence we might have something to talk about.
Unfortunately, Mr. Powell’s comments came as American sources said that for the first time the United States is considering stationing American observers in Palestinian territories to try to halt the violence. That would be virtually guaranteed to produce a significant number of body bags coming home. Of all the conflicts in the world, this one might have the most people with motivation to want to hurt Americans and experience at doing so.
COURTING ARAB DICTATORS
One may hope that a few people in the American foreign policy establishment are not really eager to station American "peacekeepers" in Palestine or Israel to maintain an inevitably shaky truce. But most diplomats believe an attack on Saddam Hussein will succeed only if a significant number of Arab states support the offensive. While a good deal of damage could probably be inflicted through the use of U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, most military authorities believe the U.S. will have to have at least some installations on land to succeed in defeating Saddam.
Thus the flurry of American activity in an arena in which the Bush administration has until recently wisely declined to get too heavily involved.
Some will argue that the United States has a humanitarian obligation to try to stop the mutual bloodletting. There is little doubt that the violence between Israel and Palestine has escalated to horrendous proportions in the last few weeks. But how realistic is the hope that the United States, after all its history, can play honest broker in the region? How deep are the enmities involved?
Earlier this week a Palestinian lady sent me a copy of a BBC report with photographs that have been splashed across the front pages of Palestinian and Arabic newspapers. The "graphic, but inconclusive images," as the BBC described some 11 photographs taken by an amateur photographer from his window in East Jerusalem the previous Friday, purport to show a Palestinian militant being executed by Israel Defense Forces.
Israeli police say it was necessary to prevent Mahmoud Salah, a member of the al-Aqsa militia, from detonating bombs strapped to his body. But if you thought somebody had bombs on his body, would you keep your distance or get close and strip him? The photos show a man being pushed to the ground, then stripped to his underwear with a gun pointed at his head. There is no photo of a shot being fired, but the final photo shows blood flowing from the area of his head and his arms restrained behind his back.
"These pictures show the daily crimes being committed by Israeli forces," writes my correspondent.
OUTRAGES ALL AROUND
There is no shortage of photos showing the results of Palestinian violence against Israelis, including civilians. A week ago Tuesday gunmen attacked vehicles near Kibbutz Metsuba, a communal farm near the border with Lebanon. Israeli radio said six Israelis and two assailants were killed. There have been suicide bombings in numerous Israeli civilian areas. And there has been a concerted Israeli military campaign against refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza in the days before Gen. Zinni’s arrival.
It is difficult to envision how the United States can solve all these problems, especially since few Americans have or care to have the kind of specialized and esoteric knowledge required to understand the roots of these conflicts. As Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and international affairs at the libertarian Cato Institute told me Tuesday, "I can imagine a truce, even a truce lasting for a few months, assuming and it’s a big assumption Yasser Arafat can control Palestinian militants. But it’s hard to see it lasting much longer."
The rhetoric on both sides is appalling, reflecting hardened attitudes that can see nothing but evil and bad intentions on the other side. There’s been a resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism not seen in public since the Nazi days in the Arab press. A Saudi newspaper financed by the government recently ran a piece by a purported Saudi scholar seriously claiming that Jews cannot celebrate the feast of Purim without pastries made of the blood of young non-Jewish children the ancient "blood libel."
Reuters last week reported on a poll in which 46 percent of Israeli Jews consider "transferring" Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to where was not specified an acceptable option. The word "transfer" is really a euphemism for "expulsion." Advocates claim that expulsion would not be necessary because hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would leave voluntarily. Sure they would.
This mutual hostility is deplorable enough. Still, it remains difficult to see what the United States or other outsiders can do to ameliorate all this hostility.
I talked to Leon Hadar, former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and now Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Leon has for several years been propounding the idea that with the demise of the Soviet Union and no direct threat to Israel’s actual existence, it is most useful to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a local ethnic dispute rather than as one with vast geopolitical dimensions requiring outside management or intervention.
He pointed out to me that although there are stories detailing frustration with the current level of violence among Israelis, you don’t see people on the streets demanding that Ariel Sharon either resign or take more forceful action. Likewise, there is no serious opposition to Yasser Arafat among Palestinians, and what opposition exists consists generally of more militant figures.
"If the parties involved can live, however uneasily, with the current situation, why should outsiders believe they have to or can come in and fix things?" he asked me. He noted also that while a Wednesday New York Times story characterized intensified violence in the days before Gen. Zinni’s arrival as "paradoxical," it isn’t paradoxical at all. Violence has escalated in the days before each of Zinni’s trips, which is not surprising if you figure both sides would want to consolidate whatever gains they think they might make before a possible cease-fire.
IMPROVISING RATHER THAN PLANNING
Mr. Hadar also points out that the U.S. interventions in the 1970s that culminated in the Camp David peace agreements between Israel and Egypt were preceded by months and years of behind-the-scenes activity. He sees little evidence of such preparation today. "The U.S. is acting now mainly to create a conducive environment to take on Iraq," he told me.
So how might the U.S. try to create such an environment? We’ve already seen a frenetic, largely improvised effort to get at least a cease-fire in place. There have been references to the failed plan developed a while ago by CIA director George Tenet, or to the George Mitchell pipedreams. Bush has even had nice things to say about the Saudi plan, which is essentially a PR gesture that restates old positions and proposals that haven’t created peace in the past.
There has also been at least a slight rhetorical tilt away from Israel. The U.S. sponsored that UN resolution that referred to a Palestinian state. The Bushlet offered some mild criticism of Israel, criticizing recent actions that were not qualitatively different from what Israel had been doing a week or two before.
GETTING THE MESSAGE
The Israelis got the message and announced a pullback from Ramallah. But that gesture does not change the strategic situation. Although there is some evidence of impatience with Ariel Sharon among Israelis, everyone knows that Israel is fully capable of resuming the military campaign whenever it desires.
It is still possible that U.S. pressure will induce a cease-fire. But a cease-fire that doesn’t deal even with the immediate issues that divide the sides status of refugees, status of Jerusalem, what the borders will be, how they will be guarded, genuine recognition of the other side’s right to exist free of invasion on both sides let alone the decades of mutual mistrust, is likely to provide only a temporary respite from violence. Most Middle Easterners know this full well.
WILL PEACE BRING ENDORSEMENT?
Perhaps that is one reason why, according to most reports, the Arabs have been telling Cheney that an attack on Iraq is not exactly their first desire in the world. And one wonders whether even a virtual guarantee of Israeli-Palestinian peace would bring Arab enthusiasm for such a campaign.
Few Arab leaders have much love for Saddam Hussein, although Jordan has what it considers a necessary relationship. And an attack could bring unintended consequences. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, some of the Gulf states and other countries that essentially missed out on the recent global economic boom now face restive young, restive, mostly unemployed populations that are natural recruiting grounds for fundamentalists.
Siding with the United States, especially allowing U.S. troops to use their territory or facilities, could feed unrest that is only a concern right now. We could see "regime change" that wasn’t on the agenda of the "international community" or welcomed by those Arab governments. Furthermore, Turkey and Jordan might fear a broken-up Iraq one possible outcome of a U.S. victory more than Saddam Hussein, the evil they know.
The main hope is that the two sides along the Jordan will eventually get so war-weary that they will be ready to end the violence. At that point the United States, the United Nations or some other combination of outside forces might serve a useful function as a mediator or honest broker. Unfortunately, that day doesn’t seem to be in the offing any time soon. Pushing the issue, creating a phony agreement before conditions are ripe, is almost certain to do more harm than good.