We needn't hold our breath waiting for the speech to be delivered by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell tomorrow at Louisville, Kentucky. The gospel according to Powell will draw heavily on the prophets Tenet and Mitchell, and on the vision of a Palestinian state. It may be a vision - but who will breathe life into that dry bone?
The main points of Powell's speech have already been discussed. They included primarily a vigorous call for a cessation of violence on both sides, a freeze on the settlements, an end to incitement, a comprehensive battle against terrorism and the establishment of a Palestinian state at the conclusion of the process, though no one knows when that process will begin or where it will lead.
Maybe President George Bush will support the initiative, or maybe he won't. That's what Powell is nervous about: as of Thursday, he still had not been apprised by the White House whether he will be speaking about the "Powell initiative" or about the "initiative of the U.S. administration."
Nor was it clear whether administration mediators will be launching a new round of talks in the region. Will Anthony Zinni, the designated replacement for Dennis Ross, be able to make progress where his predecessor failed? Powell himself replied to that question in an interview with the New York Times, in which he said involvement at senior levels will depend on how much progress is made. So, if no progress is made, the president will not become involved and therefore no progress will be made, thus obviating the need for the president's involvement. That's more or less the mode of operation that Bush aspired to at the start of his presidency.
The question is whether the war in Afghanistan will bring about something of a change in his approach. Will he adopt the viewpoint of the Arab leaders, and particularly the leaders of Egypt and Syria, to the effect that the source of terrorism lies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so that anyone who wants to put an end to global terrorism should start by dealing with that conflict? It's very unlikely that Bush will accept that position. The administration, according to Arab commentators, wants at most to throw a declarative bone to the Arab states but not to become a mediator. Bush, they say, wants an Arab coalition against Arabs and Muslims, but to this day he hasn't delivered the goods against Israel.
They find support for their argument in the media offensive being waged in the United States against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and of course in Bush's insulting move when he refused to even shake the hand of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The struggle, as these commentators see it, is between Bush's "street" and the Arab or Palestinian "street." The American "street" is controlled by the Jews, while the dominant desire on the Arab "street" is to throw back the offensive against the Arabs and against Islam. In this state of affairs, with the American street controlled and the Arab street submissive, there is nothing to induce Bush to enter the risk-fraught Middle East arena.
It follows that nothing new and certainly no solution can be expected as the outcome of Powell's speech, which will also include a declaration of support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. At most, there will be an expression of a position of principle such as is not in dispute even with the Sharon government, which has already prepared an incomprehensible formula for the framework of a Palestinian state. It's something that looks like an autonomous province within the geographical framework of a district that will be called a "state" instead of "Area A."
Powell's speech, then, could act, perhaps, at most as a transit permit for the administration in the Middle East as it moves further along the road of its battle against bin Laden, or what is perceived as a war against Islam.
Is there anything that might kick-start the process, despite everything? The important Lebanese commentator Hazem Sariya says in an article in the newspaper Al-Hayat that the process would be revitalized if two conditions were met: "The Palestinians would speak in uniform political tones and in one political voice, while the extremists would leave their extremism on the sidelines. The second thing is Israeli public opinion, which would acknowledge the new reality and cooperate with it. Public opinion in Israel was with us until it went crazy and shifted to support Sharon's hysteria. We can bring it back to its senses if we ourselves come back to our senses."
Cogent views like this are not yet being voiced in Israel. That's because in Israel they're still asking how many Arabs support what Sariya says, who he represents and what his interest is. In Israel the right wing flaunts the proposals Israel made at Taba and Camp David as proof of Israeli generosity that was rejected, and argues there is therefore no place for new generosity. As though this multi-generational conflict has any place at all for one-time proposals that are discarded if they're not made use of.
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