The postponement of U.S. President George W. Bush's keynote address on the Middle East in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attack in Jerusalem provides an excellent opportunity for shelving the speech altogether. The details that have leaked out on its content assign the address a distinguished place on the junk-pile of previous American plans for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli crisis - from Camp David, to the proposals of George Mitchell, George Tenet and Anthony Zinni.
Bush's speech has aroused more expectations than any other diplomatic initiative of the past two years. The present Washington administration has learned from the lessons of the past - for example, the previous administration's hasty preparations of the failed Camp David summit. Hence, the Bush administration has been conducting a protracted round of internal and external "consultations." The anticipated result looks like an exhausted recycling of ideas that have been floated in the past and are intended to pacify everyone, without taking any risks.
The Bush administration's position has an inherent paradox: On one hand, the administration considers the present Palestinian-Israel conflict to be a war on terrorism and, therefore, supports Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; on the other hand, it also views the conflict as a war of national liberation that should end with the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. "The Washington administration constantly wavers between the Arab oil barrel and the Jewish vote," says Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Bush tripped himself up when he granted contradictory promises to Sharon and to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Bush's solution was to give both sides what they wanted: a timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state and for a peace agreement, in accordance with the Palestinians' demand, and, on the other hand, a list of demands and reforms that will be tested in the field, in accordance with the Israelis' urgings - yes to a Palestinian state, and no to a Palestinian state; Arafat at the helm, and Arafat on the way to collecting his pension checks.
The confusion in the Washington administration is immense. Richard Haass, director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, recently told an Israeli colleague that the discussions in the Bush administration looked very much like the discussions in the Israeli cabinet. Haass and his colleagues find it very difficult to bridge the Saudi demand that any Palestinian-Israeli peace treaty must be based on an Israeli return to the June 4, 1967, borders and Sharon's declaration that Israel would never be able to survive with such boundaries.
Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell raised the idea of a temporary Palestinian state up the flagpole, without first examining the notions's essential meaning. The legal experts in both the State Department and the White House were caught completely off guard and wondered out loud how such a state's sovereignty could be defined. For instance, would Israel be free to enter such a state's territories as it is doing now?
American creativity has produced a new breed of Oslo agreements that has the same minefields that blew up the previous Oslo process. Once more, the international community is trying to give a small quantity of security to the Israelis and a small amount of independence to the Palestinians, while, at the same time, it is postponing discussion of the really tough issues. When the timetable's deadline passes, the Palestinians will seek to cash the postdated check they received and will demand the promised peace agreement, while Israel will argue that the Palestinians did not fulfill their end of the deal. The result will be that the conflict will be reignited.
The events of the past week have illustrated that the diplomatic moves are light-years removed from the reality in the field. The chief result of the U.S. initiative was that Israel's determination to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield has been intensified. At this week's cabinet session, Public Security Minister Uzi Landau warned that the window of opportunity for bringing about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority would soon close.
Sharon, with an economic crisis on his hands, took Landau's advice. The prime minister reacted to Tuesday's terrorist attack in Jerusalem with an announcement that the Palestinian territories would gradually be reoccupied. Sharon's renewed threat to banish Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat provided him with a scarecrow that will keep Labor in the coalition. Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer are so afraid of the prospect of the Palestinian leader's removal that, in return for his being allowed to remain in Ramallah, they agreed to Israel once again occupying Palestinian cities and banishing second-rank leaders.
The American administration's totally unrealistic formulations will not bring about calm. Both the Palestinians and Israelis are full of hatred and a lust for victory and will continue fighting until one of the sides surrenders - either in the wake of a reoccupation or in the wake of a social and economic collapse.
The ideas for ending the conflict can be implemented only through the deployment of a large international peacekeeping force in the territories that would dismantle both the Palestinian terrorist organizations and the Jewish settlements and would establish permanent borders between the Palestinians and Israelis. If the U.S. is unwilling to pay this price, it must beat a retreat from its remakes of Oslo and Camp David and develop a model for the protracted management of the crisis - a model that will have its ups and downs, as is the case in Kashmir.
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