Powell´s Middle East Speech: A Scorecard (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER PUBLIC AFFAIRS) JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF Vol.1, No.10 11/21/01)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
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Secretary of State Colin Powell´s much-anticipated unveiling of
America´s vision for the Middle East (University of Louisville, Nov.
19) nudged U.S. policy in a positive direction in certain respects,
but is unlikely to meet the expectations which preceded it. The
speech will not placate the rage of the Arab street, which has
already been significantly quieted as a result of the emerging
American victory against the Taliban. As long as Palestinian leader
Yasser Arafat refuses to make the strategic decision to halt his year-
long armed offensive against Israel, the prospects for diplomatic
progress are not great. In this sense, the initiative was probably
premature; nonetheless, its content deserves careful analysis.
The Positive Elements
Importance of regional climate: Powell began by describing his pride
in participating in the liberation of Kuwait, and in the Madrid
conference that same year that "took advantage of the opportunity
created by the successful war." At the same time he admitted
that "the hope created at Madrid has faded" and stated that the U.S.
is now trying to renew the "spirit of Madrid." The lesson left unsaid
is that the positive climate of 1991 must be restored, which means
defeating states that support terrorism. Those who claim that the
peace process must be pursued to defang radicalism have it backwards;
it is a positive regional climate, created by winning wars, that is a
prerequisite to a productive peace process.
Madrid and Resolution 242 trump Oslo and Camp David: By emphasizing
the Madrid conference and UN Security Council Resolution 242 and
using them as his primary benchmarks, Powell clearly deemphasized the
Oslo Accords, the 2000 Camp David summit, and the Taba follow-on
talks. This is a healthy, back-to-basics approach, and implies a
rejection of the idea that the parties were one more Israeli
concession away from a viable peace agreement.
Mitchell sequence left intact: Despite widespread reports to the
contrary, Powell did not contradict Israel´s demand for one terror-
free week before negotiations begin. Though he did not endorse this
demand, he clearly rejected the Palestinian idea that Israel should
negotiate under fire. As Powell put it: "Palestinians need to
understand that however legitimate their claims, they cannot be
heard, let alone addressed, through violence...terror and violence
must stop and stop now."
Results, not promises: "The Palestinian leadership must make a 100
percent effort to end violence and terror. There must be real
results, not just words and declarations. Terrorists must be stopped
before they act. The Palestinian leadership must arrest, prosecute
and punish the perpetrators of terrorist acts...live up to the
agreements they have made...[and be] held to account when they do
not." Significantly, Powell implicitly rejects European efforts to
define Arafat´s intifada violence as something different from
terrorism. This clear language holds Palestinian Authority Chairman
Yasser Arafat to a high results-based standard, and implies that if
he fails he will not only gain no diplomatic benefit, he will find
himself on the wrong side of the post-September 11 divide.
The Negative Elements
Misguided conception: The overall conception of the speech, which was
in the works before September 11, was to mollify demands from Europe
and the Arab world that the U.S. was not sufficiently "engaged" in
pressing peace on Israel and the Palestinians. The premise here is
that hatred of America can be reduced and cooperation of Arab states
in the war on terrorism can be increased by exhibiting a willingness
to pressure Israel through a peace process.
In reality, the cooperation of Arab states in the war on terrorism is
a function of U.S. seriousness and resolve. As Daniel Pipes has
pointed out (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 21), the governments in China,
Saudi Arabia, and Egypt all moved more forcefully against Islamic
militants only after the fall of Kabul. Former Assistant Secretary of
State Martin Indyk notes that the widespread protests throughout the
Arab world started with the U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan but began
disappearing as victories against the Taliban mounted.
The attempt to indulge Arab demands to pressure Israel opens up
a "Pandora´s box" of endless diplomatic demands for the U.S. with
respect to Israel. These "grievances" are a bottomless pit, for they
will never be satisfied by the typical diplomatic movement that
characterizes the peace process. As Fareed Zakaria writes (Newsweek,
Oct. 15), "we cannot offer the Arab world support for its solution
[to its problem with Israel] -- the extinction of the state. We
cannot in any way weaken our commitment to the existence and the
health of Israel."
Evenhandedness: A related weakness of the speech was its continuation
of the "arbitrary evenhandedness" that Powell pledged to end. Powell
bent over backwards to at least sound equally critical of Israel and
the Palestinians, and place the burden of reaching peace equally
on "both sides." Such evenhandedness blurs the distinction between
terrorism and self-defense, and completely ignores the fact that
Israel offered to "end the occupation" at Camp David, and was not
only rebuffed but met with violence and terrorism.
By ignoring the enormous "risks for peace" Israel has taken, partly
at U.S. urging, Powell signals to Israelis that any concessions
Israel makes will only increase, rather than decrease, the pressure
from the international community. By the same token, the Palestinians
would naturally understand that the way to escape pressure to
compromise is to become more intransigent and violent, as happened
after the 2000 Camp David summit.
Structurally, the speech equated the expansion of Israeli settlements
in the disputed West Bank and Gaza territories with Palestinian
terrorism, despite the fact that the former is permitted by the Oslo
Accords, while the latter is a gross violation of their letter and
spirit. Essentially, Israel is asked to make new concessions that go
beyond the Oslo Agreements in order to gain Palestinian compliance
with PLO obligations within Oslo.
What does Israel gain tangibly?: The positive elements for Israel in
the Powell speech are chiefly procedural. The Palestinians, in
contrast, make tangible gains in substance: a "viable" Palestinian
state. Past secretaries of state at least offered Israel assurances
on borders: thus Secretary of State George Shultz (Sept. 16,
1988): "Israel will never negotiate from or return to the lines of
partition or to the 1967 borders." Secretary of State Warren
Christopher wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Jan. 17,
1997): "I would like to reiterate our position that Israel is
entitled to secure and defensible borders, which should be directly
negotiated and agreed with its neighbors."
But Powell grants "secure and recognized borders" evenhandedly to
both Israel and Palestine. In reality, it is Israel that has
historically been threatened by 21 Arab states: the Palestinians are
not threatened by 21 Jewish states, so that Powell´s symmetry is
divorced from the strategic fundamentals of the Arab-Israeli
conflict. The statement about accepting "the legitimacy of Israel as
a Jewish state" was an appreciated gesture to Israel. However, this
position was essentially put forward in the past when the U.S.
supported the creation of a Jewish state at the United Nations in
1947, with the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 181.
Finally, Powell adopts language of parity about Jerusalem, since he
insists that the "religious and political concerns of both sides be
part of any solution." Other Bush Administration spokesmen, like U.S.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, avoided this detail by
restating simply that the Jerusalem issue needs to be resolved
directly by the parties.
Whither political reform?: It is incongruous, to say the least, that
the words "freedom" and "democracy" would be completely absent from
an American vision for the Arab world. Powell praised Israel´s
democracy, but for the Arabs spoke coyly of the need for "the rule of
law" and the "politics of participation."
To emphasize the Palestinian issue while downplaying the political
decay in the Arab world is to engage in distractions rather than the
heart of the matter. "If there is one great cause of the rise of
Islamic fundamentalism," Zakaria continues, "it is the total failure
of political institutions of the Arab world."
Unwarranted expectations: The present focus on the Palestinian issue
appears to be unwarranted for another reason. The declaration of a
new American peace initiative implies that Israel and the
Palestinians are ripe for a diplomatic breakthrough. Powell himself
stated a day after his Louisville address, "We have a new opportunity
before us" regarding the peace process. Yet is this elevation of
expectations appropriate? Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State
Edward Walker, until recently State´s leading Middle East authority,
stated (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 17), "I have concluded that Arafat will
not make peace because he doesn´t have a vision to lead his people to
peace." Indeed, during 2001, Palestinian positions on the peace
process have discernibly hardened; Palestinian National Council
Chairman Salim Za´anun announced that the PLO Covenant calling for
Israel´s destruction remains in force. And Yasser Arafat´s own
spokesmen speak openly about replacing Israel with a democratic
Palestinian state (Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 1, No. 2).
Powell´s Mideast vision, despite some positive elements, poses
certain difficulties. Its inherent optimism is divorced from the
reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations today. Its symmetric
criticism of Israel and the Palestinians is counterproductive, for
the critique of Israel undercuts the hard message Powell intends to
deliver to the Palestinian side. Powell´s main mistake is to ignore
his own lesson from the Madrid Conference by acting as if
reinvigorating the peace process is a component of the war on
terrorism, rather than a potential fruit of victory in that war.
Accordingly, Powell´s initiative should have been undertaken only
after Yasser Arafat ended support for terrorism and met the standards
set by President Bush for membership in the coalition against
terrorism. (www.jcpa.org. © Copyright. 11/21/01)
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