In his new book, "Bush at War," journalist Bob Woodward writes about Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East in the spring of this year in an attempt to calm the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during Operation Defensive Shield. The secretary of state did not want to make the trip, arguing he did not have much influence over the sides. "We're in trouble," the president told him. Powell said, "Yes sir," and headed to Jerusalem.
On the night before his return to Washington, Powell sat in his hotel room and drafted a final statement, sending it to the White House for confirmation. Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor, wanted it moderated so as not to commit to a renewal of the negotiations. Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, was asked to pass on the message and, according to Woodward, Powell went ballistic, complaining that the White House wanted to appear to be pro-Israeli, while he has to carry the Palestinian brief.
"They sent me on an impossible mission," Woodward quotes Powell as saying. But the complaints didn't help. Rice called Powell herself and warned him not to make a commitment on behalf of the administration "more than what we all want." The secretary surrendered and announced the next day that he was going back home for more "consultations," without promising a thing.
Powell failed to achieve a cease-fire and has not been seen in the region since. His failure was predictable. For the last three years, the U.S. has tried quite a few remedies and potions that were considered magic solutions in the past.
The Israeli left promised that if only an American bridging proposal was put on the table, the puzzle would resolve itself. It believed that presidential involvement, including summoning the leaders to a summit, would bring forth an agreement. It hoped that a special envoy to crack heads together would result in concessions. It assumed that the "political horizon" proposals made to the Palestinians would rein in the murder, and so the administration adopted the idea of a Palestinian state. The right, on the other hand, wanted the Americans to give up on Arafat, and Bush called for his replacement.
And the results: The peace process fell apart; Israel reoccupied the West Bank; and the cemeteries filled with new victims of the conflict.
Now the hopes are being pinned on the expected war in Iraq. The right and the General Staff believe that raising the stars and stripes in Baghdad will set in motion a domino effect in the region, with Arafat being replaced by a new leader who will agree to Sharon's truncated political plan. On the left, there's hope that after a U.S. victory in Iraq, Bush will attack the settlements and get us out of the territories.
Administration rhetoric provides buttresses to both sides, but they are both going to be disappointed. Bush did not manage to move Arafat out of his seat, despite the threats and the diplomatic isolation. The administration dropped the failure on Sharon, with the unconvincing claim that the siege on Arafat's headquarters had saved the Palestinian leader from impeachment. But the president also failed to apply pressure on Israel that would ease the suffering in the territories and move funding to the Palestinians. Sharon promised things would be fine, but always found a reason not to keep his promises. The White House surprised Sharon with the "road map" and then he agreed to reject it.
From the Israeli perspective, there's no doubt that the superpower has failed. But do the Americans perceive the failure? The story about Powell shows the White House is not ready to take a risk to save the Palestinians and Israelis from each other. Bush achieved his goals: The conflict is imprisoned between the Jordan and the Mediterranean and has not spilled into neighboring countries. Sharon and Arafat aren't spoiling Bush's war plans in Iraq. From Bush's perspective, things can go on this way until the next presidential elections.
Experience shows that political breakthroughs between Israel and the Arabs take place through direct contacts and not American mediation. This time, too, the key to ending the conflict is to be found in the exhaustion on both sides, and not on anything from Washington. The IDF's difficulties calling up reservists, training its standing forces and empty coffers, coupled with the recent talks between Hamas and Fatah on the Palestinian side, show the breaking point may be closer than anyone thought.
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