A car bomb in an Israeli shopping mall and retaliatory strikes by U.S.-made F-16 jets this weekend forced the Bush administration to get off the bench and take a position on the field for the first time in the growing Middle East conflict. Secretary of State Colin Powell Monday called for a total halt to all violence by Israelis and Palestinians, to be followed by "confidence-building measures" aimed at reopening the door to peace talks. Unfortunately, the prerequisite to Powell's plan will likely doom it to failure.
Before the talks can resume, Powell suggested, Israelis must commit to a total freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza -- a call that has already been rejected by the hawkish allies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Even dovish Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been critical of abandoning settlement construction. During a recent Washington visit, Peres stated that with 200,000 settlers, the "normal growth" needs of expanding families will require construction of new homes. On Monday, Powell took his strongest stand yet against the Israeli settlements -- long a thorn in the relationship between Israel and previous U.S. administrations going back 20 years -- ruling out even what Israel calls "normal growth."
Powell's call for an end to violence -- his first priority Monday as he endorsed the peace plan of the commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell -- was itself dead on arrival in many areas of the Middle East. Even if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were to pledge to uphold the Mitchell report's call for a total end to violence -- something he is unlikely to do given the anger, militancy and divisiveness among his own people -- it's not likely he could stop every Hamas terrorist, every jihad bomber, every freelance sniper anxious to kill an Israeli to avenge the nearly 500 Palestinians killed since September.
President Clinton set up the Mitchell Commission in October after a peace summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, failed to end the fighting. Clinton commissioned Mitchell to investigate the causes of the violence and recommend ways to move toward ending it and resuming peace.
The Mitchell Commission formally released its report in New York Monday, but a leaked copy had already been published in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. It called for an end to the fighting, the halting of settlement building and the arrests of known Arab terrorists -- all steps intended to precede peace talks. It also called on Israel not to use lethal force against stone throwers.
The report also concluded that Sharon was not responsible for provoking the Al-Aqsa intifada last September when he paid a visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif. Powell said Monday that "when the Bush administration came in, Senator Mitchell came to see me to ask whether the work of the commission should continue. The Bush administration gave Senator Mitchell our strong support."
Powell noted that though Israelis and Palestinians have voiced support for the report, both have reservations. Israel, for example, Monday rejected the proposal to halt "normal growth" of the settlements. And many Palestinians say that violence -- either with rocks or with sniping and suicide bombings -- is the only way they have to resist the occupation by Israel and force it to withdraw and allow them a Palestinian state.
"Tragedy has trapped the Israeli and Palestinian peoples in a continuing downward spiral of violence for the past eight months, a spiral that has gotten worse in the last few days," said Powell. He first singled out the Palestinians, saying: "We note the report's reference to the need for the Palestinians to make an all-out effort to enforce a complete cessation of violence." He then singled out the Israelis, saying: "We note the report's observations on the negative impact of continued settlement activity on the prospects for peace." Powell later elaborated that he thought all new construction should be stopped.
But Powell's sympathies seemed to lean more toward Israel in the end. In his speech, he concluded that the halt to the spread of settlements should only follow a halt in the violence. "Senator Mitchell and the other committee members put the settlement issue in the context of confidence-building measures," he said. "It is not linked in any way to his earlier call for an immediate cessation of hostilities. "
Despite three months of efforts by the Bush administration to distance itself from the Middle East conflict and let the parties to the conflict wear themselves down until they are ready for peace, Powell was forced to step in this weekend as the violence escalated. "The United States is prepared to work closely with the parties to develop a framework and timeline to implement the report's recommendations, including the return to negotiations," he said on Monday. The speech followed an announcement Monday that Powell was appointing a special representative to the Middle East, U.S. Ambassador to Jordan William Burns, who has now been tapped to become assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. He will report to Bush and Powell.
Powell also stated that he has no immediate plans to visit to the Middle East. However, he said, "the United States will remain engaged. I will remain engaged. The president will remain engaged."
"It is clear, now more than ever, there can be no military solution -- no military solution -- to this conflict, and that negotiation provides the only path to a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East," he said. When asked why this call for an end to violence would be any more successful than previous calls, by Presidents Clinton, Bush and others, Powell pointed out the serious escalation in killings over the weekend -- which began with the shooting of five Palestinian policemen who were quietly eating their dinner and ended with the suicide bombing claimed by Hamas and the retaliatory strikes that killed even more Palestinian security officers. Monday more attacks took place as Israel used helicopters and missiles in what appears a futile effort to crush the Palestinian uprising.
Even Israeli newspapers questioned the use of warplanes against the Palestinians, who have no air force or anti-air defense. The Arab League has called for a cutoff of all diplomatic ties with Israel, threatening to turn the clock back to before the 1991 Madrid Conference when such contacts really became official.
Israeli Raanan Gissen, a spokesman for Sharon, welcomed the report Monday, but said Israel "rejected the issue of a complete freeze on settlements."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the report would be "a real test for the American administration. But the real key for success is to stop all settlement activities without any exceptions."
Powell's strong statement Monday to reporters at the State Department marked his increasing frustration at the course of events in the Middle East, which the Bush administration has so far proved powerless to influence. Powell began his stint as secretary of state with a trip to the Middle East in March aimed at bringing tighter weapons sanctions against Iraq in return for easing the flow of consumer goods to the country. But he was startled from the moment he landed in Egypt to hear the anger and hostility of Arab leaders and journalists over the Israeli use of live ammo to stop mobs of stone-throwing Palestinians. In Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria he heard the same message -- that anger in the Arab "street" or public opinion against Israel was also being targeted at the United States, Israel's biggest supporter.
Fanned by the new, unfettered Arab satellite television broadcasts, which reach past the tight censorship of Arab governments, the Arab-Israeli conflict stubbornly resisted solution and threatened to disrupt U.S.-Arab alliances against Iraq, Iran and terrorist groups -- and even to make the flow of oil from the region questionable. Saudi Arabia's ruling crown prince has refused to visit Washington while Palestinians are dying.
Powell dithered in public over the question of Arafat's commitment to peace and his ability to control the militants, many of whom have upgraded their attacks from rocks to sniping, to car bombs, suicide bombings and mortar attacks. Powell did come down strongly against what he called "excessive" use of Israeli force after helicopters hit a Palestinian security base in April, after Israelis picked off militant leaders and again when Israeli tanks and troops entered Area A lands that had been turned over to Arafat's total control under the 1993 Oslo accords. Now it's the settlements.
But each and every call for an end or a reduction in violence has been met with a new blast, a new death and a new reprisal by the other side. Israelis say they will not fire unless attacked and everything would be quiet in one hour if the Palestinians would stop. Palestinians refuse to be peacefully shut up inside the cages that the small autonomous islands of the West Bank have become, cut off from one another by Israeli troops and tanks.
And meanwhile, the Bush administration, which refuses to invite Arafat to Washington as long as the violence goes on, has yet to find an effective way to slow the rising tide of pain in the region.