5 Apr 2002
Martin Woollacott (The Guardian)
It has been a long time coming, but President Bush has finally engaged with the West Asian crisis which his administration has skirted for so many months. One American commentator recently called on the United States to wake up, and behave, for God's sake, like a superpower”. On Thursday, Bush seemed to be acting on such advice. When the rhetoric, and long exposition of anti-terrorist principles, are set aside, at the heart of his speech was a series of orders.
Even as he told Yasser Arafat to repudiate suicide bombings, he told Ariel Sharon to get his troops out of the West Bank and to end settlement activity. He told the moderate Arab states to put maximum pressure on the Palestinians to renounce the attacks; he told Syria to decide which side it was on; he told Iran to cease arms shipments to the Palestinians. He made demands in a manner expecting obedience, almost as if chastising inadequate members of his own administration, or incompetent viceroys in foreign parts.
In other circumstances Bushs peremptory style might be resented, but as an index of American seriousness it is welcome. The length (and tone) of his speech was one thing that distinguished it from previous statements by Bush and by his secretary of state, Colin Powell. The other was that it included specific requirements that Israel withdraw from West Bank cities it has reoccupied, that a political process must follow a ceasefire, and that the process must end in a Palestinian state that would be viable.
Viable in this context will be instantly interpreted by Palestinians as meaning a state with something close to the attributes which were discussed at Camp David and Taba. At the very least, viable could never apply to what we know about Sharons ideas of a Palestinian state without coherent territory, without control over any part of Jerusalem, and without command over resources such as water and power. Given that Israeli spokesmen have been almost daily emphasising that what was offered at the time of Camp David and Taba will never be repeated, this is a gage thrown down before the Israeli leader.
It may be that the American administration has finally grasped that Sharon is not only part of the problem, but actually constitutes much of the problem facing those, on either side, who are ready to make peace. Doubts must remain about how far the US administration understands that skilful use of the terror argument has allowed Sharon to obfuscate his own responsibility for the violence and his pursuit of a solution that, insofar as it can be sketched, would be deeply unjust — and unattainable without the flight of much of the Palestinian population.
The most important change is that the Bush administration has committed itself in this speech, in a manner which is close to unequivocal, to steer the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians through to a settlement. American prestige is now on the line in a way it has not been before, even during President Clintons efforts to mediate; and the most important aspect of any act of policy now becomes its success or otherwise in leading to such a settlement. That now matters more than Israeli wishes, Palestinian wishes, the influence of the Israeli lobby, or the attitudes of diaspora Jews.
Whereas the critical element used to be that the president wanted to steer a course that would keep him clear of trouble, the new critical element is that the president must not fail. That changes a great deal. But it does not mean that the parties will fail to fasten instantly on Americas new policy in an attempt to bend it to their purposes, or to sabotage it completely. They will certainly do so, and there is no guarantee that they may not succeed, given the fissures still apparent within the Bush administration over Israel and the conduct of the campaign against terror.
The administration has agonised so long over how to deal with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that it has allowed the conflict to grow almost into a full-scale war. From the start the administration was torn over whether Sharon was an ally whose activities represented another front in the campaign against terrorism, or whether his fight gravely weakened the US in the pursuit of that campaign.
This argument is hardly over, but Bushs speech, together with recent American moves at the United Nations, suggests that the administration has moved several degrees toward the latter position.
In Israel and the territories there will be relief and hope, as well as rage in some quarters. Israelis and Palestinians had become so manifestly incapable of extricating themselves from this crisis on their own that many craved, some in public and some less openly, a forceful takeover of their affairs by the only country with serious leverage on both sides.
Yossi Sarid, the leader of the Meretz party, for instance, wrote recently that The US says that if both sides dont want to reach an understanding, it cannot force them to accept one. This is not true. In Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia, the sides might not really have wanted an agreement but the international community, with American backing, spoke and acted.” Sarid, who advocates a US-led international force, adds: When victims fall every day and both sides are blinded by hatred and revenge, we are Kosovo. And a Kosovo-like reality demands a Kosovo-like solution.”
On the Palestinian side there are many like Afif Safieh, the Palestinian representative in London, who concluded long ago that the dysfunctional nature of the Israeli political system, which gives disproportionate influence to minorities, meant that the crisis could only be resolved by outside power. No doubt there are also Palestinians who, more privately, wanted to see their own leadership rescued from a different kind of paralysis.
The promise of the Bush speech for that leadership if they take it at face value (and they have little alternative but to do so) is that, if suicide attacks cease, the Americans are now undertaking to force the Israelis into political concessions that will lead in time to a State. The chances are there will be such a cessation, following an Israeli withdrawal.
Then will come the real test of the new US policy, as ceasefire arrangements give way to a political phase in which the Sharon government is likely to try to evade substantive talks, and to cut down what is to be offered. There will also be wreckers on the Palestinian side, possibly assisted by Israeli provocations. A civil war among Palestinians is not impossible.
Colin Powell, now designated as Bushs envoy, will need the coolest of heads if there is not to be a relapse into war. But, as Sarid wrote: America does not have the luxury of deciding when and where it will intervene. I have bad news for the US government: when you try to run away from the Middle East, the Middle East will run after you — and catch up.”