17 Apr 2002
THE SHUTTLE DIPLOMACY of the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in war-torn West Asia at this time has run into a tempest of political fury over human tragedies on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. If Israel thinks that it holds the upper hand in the war itself, the beleaguered Palestinians have succeeded in turning the international spotlight towards their basic political cause — the quest for a viable state of their own. Israel's recent waves of military incursions into the Palestinian West Bank have caused a major humanitarian problem — in particular, what some aid officials characterise as a horrendous situation in Jenin. In fact, scanty is the net `gain' that the Jewish state can show for its militarist overdrive, because the Arab perception evokes considerable sympathy across the world. The humanitarian tragedy has much to do with Israel's latest occupation of a number of Palestinian places. Even if the Jerusalem establishment is to roll back its current military offensive under the U.S.-led international pressure, the Arab anger will not be easy to mollify. A representative Palestinian Authority had in recent years come to administer these areas, without the plenary powers of sovereign statehood though, as a result of a chain of events under the so-called Oslo peace process and the follow-up international diplomacy. It is against this background of pan-Arab frustration that the latest public discourse on a possible new international conference on the Israel-Palestine issue acquires importance.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, is reported to have suggested that a U.S.-facilitated regional peace conference might be the best means of resolving not only the present crisis but also the endemic conflicts involving his country and its immediate neighbours. Mr. Sharon's proposal, which Gen. Powell is said to be actively seized of, is virtually a diplomatic riposte in the context of Riyadh's recent offer of a pan-Arab recognition of the Jewish state in exchange for its vacation of all the territories annexed in the 1967 war in West Asia. On a psychological plane, Israel has not so far indicated a categorical willingness to accept the land-for-peace plan — Saudi Arabia's updated version of earlier proposals of a similar nature at the U.N. and elsewhere. Obviously, the Jerusalem establishment has yet to firm up its own blueprint of a future Israel with secure and defensible frontiers. This issue of vital concern to the Jewish state, whose right to exist is now beginning to be conceded by most of its historical opponents in West Asia, entails the interests of Syria and Lebanon as also others in the region. Gen. Powell's specific efforts to engage these countries as part of his ongoing shuttle diplomacy should be seen in this light.
On a larger political plane, though, Israel's latest game plan seems to centre on how best to isolate the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and render him irrelevant to a peace settlement. Israel's ire, or more specifically Mr. Sharon's wrath, of such peculiar dimension is a matter of personality clash as also a war of perceptions. The present turmoil in West Asia, which threatens to complicate and even wreck the U.S.-led global "campaign" against the politics of terrorism, is a sequel to many "mutinies" and missed opportunities. The Palestinian "intifada" — an uprising against Israel's attitude and policies of overlordship — is increasingly getting wrapped in the controversial "mystique" of anti-Jewish suicide-bombings. Compounding this are the consequences of Mr. Arafat's hesitation to agree to a peace settlement that might be seen as being conciliatory to Israel in one respect or the other. With the Palestinian-Arab extremists exploiting this situation, Mr. Powell's talks with Mr. Arafat may prove to be more decisive than at any time in recent months.