Powell’s Orders Are to Whittle Sharon Down

At the White House yesterday, President George W. Bush declared, “We are closer to peace now than we were before. That is why Colin Powell is leaving for the Middle East tonight.”
Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon came out of their meeting standing firmly by his pre-condition of 10 days absolutely clear of violent incidents and casualties before moving on to the next stages of the Mitchell Report’s recommendations – a cooling off period followed by confidence building measures.
The two statements run together are the key to US Secretary Colin Powell’s mission, which is to chip away at the gap between them or, in other words, to whittle down Sharon’s stipulations for moving on towards negotiations.
If Powell brings them down to, say, a week, with a reasonable amount of Palestinian shooting ignored, he can count his mission a success.
How much is reasonable will of course be judged in Washington. And the reality seen from the White House lawn may not be identical to that seen from Jerusalem.
Not surprisingly, Palestinian spokesmen were pleased with the outcome of Bush-Sharon meeting. They interpret it as US acceptance of the unfeasibility of an absolute ceasefire plus a US decision to move on towards a final-status settlement.
To help nudge the Israeli prime minister in the desired direction, a support team added their voices to the lead players in Washington. In Paris, Syrian president Bashar Assad warned the Middle East situation was deteriorating day by day. In Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak said the region would sink into “horrible terrorism” if the US did not press for a solution. But, he stressed, it was unfair to ask the impossible of the Palestinians. From their important ally Saudi Arabia, the US has received heavy flak for its alleged pro-Israeli bias.
Powell’s primary task, therefore, will be to pick up the pieces for an eventual coherent Bush administration Middle East policy compatible with larger US interests, including its impact on oil price trends.
In addition to calling on Mubarak in Cairo and several rounds of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Powell goes to Amman Friday to see King Abdullah and on to Paris for a conference with the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.
For Washington, tackling Arafat is only one part of the larger picture. The Bush administration’s short-term objective is to keep the Palestinian-Israeli conflict manageable – and therefore inconclusive, so as to be uninflammable in regional terms. Arafat must content himself with just a few shooting incidents a day, both sides must settle for a small number of casualties and, most important, Sharon must stick to his policy of military restraint.
To keep both sides in line, Powell is waving the Mitchell recommendations; the Palestinians is required to go through the easily reversed motions of arresting terrorists and rounding up a few illegal weapons; Israel must make as though it is imposing a complete freeze on the settlements. Sharon must also pretend to accept the reduced pitch of Palestinian attacks as sufficient grounds for the onset of negotiations.
All the parties know that these negotiations will lead nowhere.
But Powell will be able to leave on an upbeat note, proclaiming the next stage of the Mitchell recommendations off to a start. The Bush administration will have bought more time to get its Middle East act together.
Powell, like the CIA director George Tenet only three weeks ago, will have scarcely reached the exit before Palestinian gunmen, bombers, ambushers and suicides hurl themselves back into action against Israeli targets.
That cycle has been repeated often enough to be predictable. But some factors are not: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, for instance.
This week, Iraq’s key commands and government offices were secretly and suddenly whisked out of Baghdad to underground bunkers outside the capital. For some reason, Saddam looks as though he is preparing for a US attack, which may or may not be in reprisal for some as yet unimplemented Iraqi action. Moreover, the troop concentrations piling up in North and West Iraq may be preparing for an offensive against the Kurdish tribes. That is one possibility. But they may also be a signal to Washington that Saddam will no longer take US actions against him lying down.
Any US-Iraqi military clash will clearly upstage the Sharon-Arafat duel.
A second unpredictable circumstance would be a major Hizballah assault from Lebanon or terrorist raid inside Israel. This prospect was high on the agenda of the Syrian president’s talks in Paris Tuesday with French President Jacques Chirac. According to debkafile‘s sources in Paris, the French president demanded vehemently that Assad use his influence to rein in the Shiite group. Assad flatly refused.
The Middle East is not the only part of the world where the Bush administration finds itself stumped by the messy corollaries of his predecessor’s policy initiatives. Macedonia is another, where US-European interference has allowed Albanian belligerence to bring the Macedonian regime close to collapse. In Northern Ireland, where the shared government formula, hammered out by the same US Senator George Mitchell entrusted with Clinton’s Middle East assignment, is foundering in renewed Protestant-Catholic violence.
Perhaps the only solution for Israel in its current straits is to carry out in deed Sharon’s side remark to an Israeli correspondent after his White House encounter: It’s time to remember that Israel is an independent state.

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