Sharon and Arafat Play for Time

US secretary of state Colin Powell did not get very far in his attempts from Shanghai to convince Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that this time Israeli minister Ariel Sharon means business. He was no more successful in persuading Sharon to pull Israeli troops out of the seven Palestinian towns invaded after the assassination of Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi last Wednesday, October 17 in Jerusalem.
Powell warned Arafat he had better take action against the Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, the self-confessed assassins of Zeevi. Such a move by Arafat would also be deemed helpful in bringing Syrian president Bashar Assad round to shutting down PFLP offices in Damascus.
Until now, both Arafat and Assad have been deaf to Washington’s demands; they have made it a habit to nod to the Americans and do nothing.
To placate the US secretary, Arafat agreed to outlaw the military wing of the PFLP. However, not only do the “outlaws” continue to roam free, but they have been taken as a body under the protective wings of the Palestinian Authority’s Security Service Chiefs in Gaza and the West Bank, Muhamed Dahlan and Tawfiq Tirawi, respectively.
When he called Sharon, Powell found the Zeevi murder had effected a distinct hardening of attitude. Whereas before October 17, Sharon’s pre-condition for returning to diplomacy was a pretty elastic seven days of calm, he now stipulates a total end to Palestinian terrorism, violence and incitement, the dismantling of terrorist organizations operating in Palestinian-held territory and the extradition of the Israeli minister’s killers.
The troop incursions, he said, would end only after the IDF had finished purging the territories of terrorist bases – or Arafat carried out the job himself. But while the date of Israel’s military pullout depended on this mission being accomplished, Sharon assured Powell that Israel had no intention of making its presence in Palestinian territory permanent.
All three Middle East leaders therefore turned Colin Powell down. debkafile ‘s Washington sources confirm their responses derived from the impression of the US Secretary’s waning influence in the White House. Of late, the State Department speaks virtually for itself on any issue that counts, including diplomacy in the Middle East and even America’s global war on terror.
On the day Powell put in his phone calls to Sharon and Arafat, the influential Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, after speaking with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, wrote of the President’s new orientation on a strategic partnership with Russia since the shock of September 11:
“It is the State Department that clings to old thinking in this crisis by insisting on protecting Pakistan’s interests in Afghan tribal politics and by rewarding Pakistan with economic aid for taking steps that are in Pakistan’s interest to take… Mr. Bush’s policies are strong enough to stand on their own. They do not have to be propped up by obsequiousness as usual.”
This appreciation of the Bush stance shows up the weaknesses of Powell’s failed attempt to win an Arab coalition to support America’s war against Osama bin Laden and his Middle East and Afghan Taliban supporters and sympathizers. It also signals the failure of Powell’s recent mission to Islamabad: to use Pakistan as a channel for reaching Taliban leaders and a attaining a negotiated end to the conflict, just when the White House was leaning on Pakistan to provide more bases and broadening its battle areba against terrorism.
The pattern emerging in the top Bush team is for Powell to lead the way with quiet diplomacy, followed closely by Bush shooting from the hip.
Above all, the State Department appears oblivious of the strongest foreign policy trend embraced by the White House: the new understanding with Putin’s Moscow.
debkafile‘s Washington sources report that the US president is placing all his chips on the single card of his relationship with Putin, as the key to winning in the world war against the terrorists. Every other consideration has been cast aside. So single-minded is Bush that he was unconcerned when he and the Chinese president Jiang Zemin found no agreement on a single issue at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that ended in Shanghai on October 21. Bush seems to believe that China has no option but to fall in behind the Bush-Putin lead. Beijing has been quick to disprove this assumption with steps calculated to curtail the spread of US influence in Pakistan and Central Asia.
With America going full steam ahead in the first phase of its Afghanistan campaign and preparing to open additional fronts – possibly in Iraq and Lebanon – and Russia preparing for a major offensive in Chechnya, no one has much time to spare for Yasser Arafat. Therefore, Israel’s indefinite troop presence in seven Palestine towns does not unduly perturb too many officials in Washington or Moscow.
Assad, on the other hand, may find himself faced with more attention than he likes – not only American demands, but US Marines landing in Syrian-controlled eastern Lebanon and setting about the task of eradicating the terrorist bases of the BeqaaValley.
The Iranian leaders grasped the seriousness of the American threat first. Over the weekend, they pulled their military and Revolutionary Guards personnel out of Lebanon, ending a 15-year presence there so as not to see Iranians killed or captured in an American anti-terrorist operation.
In Israel, the Labor party, while a part of the government unity lineup, is evincing extreme nervousness over IDF operations in Palestinian territory. Their foremost complaint, that Israel is recreating a Lebanon situation, is clearly divorced from the wider context. Not only has the Labor leader, foreign minister Shimon Peres, endorsed the steps approved by the defense cabinet to purge Palestinian terrorists in the wake of the murder of a cabinet minister, but those steps are fully synchronized with the White House – if not the State Department – and will not be reversed as long as that consensus lasts.

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